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Syrian rebels free UN peacekeepers

A Filipino UN peacekeeper enters a car at the Kuneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, close to the ceasefire line between the two countries, in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Photo: Reuters

A Filipino UN peacekeeper enters a car at the Kuneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, close to the ceasefire line between the two countries, in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Photo: Reuters

Syrian rebels have freed 21 UN peacekeepers and have handed them to Jordanian authorities, according to an international peace envoy.

Mokhtar Lamani, the Damascus representative of the new UN-Arab League peace envoy to Syria, said the peacekeepers crossed into Jordan yesterday afternoon.

The peacekeepers, all Filipinos, were seized on Wednesday by Syrian rebels who initially said they would only free the hostages if Syrian regime forces withdraw from the area. They were being held in the village of Jamlah, near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Their captors from the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades initially said they would only release the hostages once Syrian troops withdrew from the area. In the days leading up to the abduction, rebels had overrun several regime checkpoints and apparently feared reprisals.

However, as the abduction made headlines, the rebels eventually dropped their demand and began negotiating a safe passage for the peacekeepers with UN officials.

On Friday, a UN team tried to retrieve the hostages, but aborted the plan because of heavy regime shelling of the area.

Yesterday, another UN team headed towards Jamlah to try again, said a rebel spokesman, who spoke via Skype, insisting on anonymity for fear of reprisals.

He said the UN team aborted the mission because of fighting in the area, and that the rebels instead escorted the hostages to the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Mr Lamani said the UN team was near Jamlah and was waiting for the rebels to hand over the hostages when the rebels changed their minds and instead drove the peacekeepers to the Jordanian border.

“We don’t know why (the rebels changed the plan), and there were lots of talks on this issue,” he said. “We were surprised when we got the news through a TV station that they had reached Jordan.”

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