June 7, 2017 10:15 am

Qatar ransom row puts spotlight on Fijian soldiers’ release

Seven Arab countries cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorist groups and backing Iran.

A $2.08 billion (US$1 billion) ransom paid to Iranian and Al Qaeda-linked forces may have been a trigger behind nations’ cutting ties with Doha, officials have claimed.

Photo: AP.
Photo: AP.

In 2014, Israel accused Qatar of paying $51.2 million (US$25 million) ransom to free 45 Fijian soldiers captured on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights by fighters from the Nusra Front.

Fiji’s Foreign Affairs Minister at the time, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola had told Parliament that Fiji’s “diplomatic influence with countries like Qatar was instrumental in the safe release of our troops.”

Kubuabola had denied any knowledge of a ransom being paid but confirmed that Qatar was the chief negotiator in the release.

Photo: Reuters.
‘We could see the singing and drink in the background, all the laughter, so they are all back to Fijian moods,’ said RFMF Commander Mosese Tikoitoga, describing a video call he had with his troops. ‘And so I assume that all is well with them, at least emotionally.’ Photo: Reuters.

A UN spokesperson had said that “no demands were made and no concessions were made’ to secure the release of the peacekeepers.”

In April 2017, Ratu Kubuabola as Defence Minister told Parliament that Qatar was “willing to have a Defence Co-operation Agreement signed between Fiji and Qatar and that Qatar can also be a haven for our troops in the Middle East.”

Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama had paid tribute to his ‘heroic’ troops who kept their cool under the ‘most extreme circumstances imaginable.’

BAINIMARAMA: “Because of their discipline, not one militant was killed, and none of our soldiers was harmed,”

Qatar said it did not support extremist groups, but is known for vigorous efforts to back rebels fighting to oust the Syrian government.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar on Sunday. Yemen, Libya and the Maldives joined in later.

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The Nusra Front militants have been battling Syrian government forces in the contested buffer zone between Syria and Israel. Photo: AFP/Getty Images.

Qatar is believed to have paid $2.08 billion (US$1 billion) to Iranian and Al Qaeda-linked forces to release hostages held in Iraq. Members of Qatar’s royal family were among the hostages caught while hunting in 2015.

Officials say the massive ransom was a ‘tipping point’ for Qatari-Gulf Arab relations.

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The Fijian troops were captured on August 28, a day after militants seized control of the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing from President Bashar Assad’s troops. Photo: AP.

The Fijian troops were captured on August 28, 2014, and the Syrian militants posted a video on social media showing the peacekeepers seemingly in good health and saying they “will be released soon”.

Near the end of the video, a Fijian soldier speaks in English and thanked Syrian militants for keeping his men safe.

“We’ve been informed that we will be released soon and we are all very happy to be going home,” the soldier said in the video.

“By the way, we are all safe and alive, and we thank Jabhat al-Nusra for keeping us safe and keeping us alive.

“I would like to assure that we have not been harmed in any way.

“We are thankful that Jabhat al-Nusra has kept its word and that we will be going home.”

Jabhat al-Nusra had demanded compensation for its members killed in the fighting, humanitarian assistance for its supporters and its removal from the UN list of terrorist organisations.

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Syrian rebels from Al-Nusra Front surround buses carrying the peacekeepers during their release. Photo: EPA.

Two groups of Filipino peacekeepers were also trapped at separate U.N. encampments that day, surrounded by rebel fighters who demanded they surrender. They refused, and both teams eventually escaped – one busting out with the help of Irish colleagues, and the other by slipping away under cover of darkness.