Syrian Rebels Free 21 UN Peacekeepers

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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels freed 21 U.N. peacekeepers on Saturday after holding them hostage for four days, ending a sudden entanglement with the world body that earned fighters trying to oust President Bashar Assad a flood of negative publicity.

The episode is bound to prompt new questions about U.N. operations in war-torn Syria. The peacekeepers were part of a force that has spent four decades monitoring an Israeli-Syrian cease-fire without incident.

The Filipino peacekeepers crossed from Syria to safety in Jordan on Saturday afternoon, said Mokhtar Lamani, the Damascus representative of the U.N.-Arab League peace envoy to Syria.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed their release, and called on all parties in Syria to respect the peacekeepers' freedom of movement.

The peacekeepers were seized Wednesday and were held in the village of Jamlah in southwestern Syria, near Jordan and 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 U.N. officials. On Friday, a U.N. team tried to retrieve the hostages, but aborted the plan because of heavy regime shelling of the area.

On Saturday, another U.N. team headed toward Jamlah to try again, said a rebel spokesman, who spoke via Skype, insisting on anonymity for fear of reprisals.

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

Lamani said the U.N. 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.

“They asked us to wait for an hour as they negotiated between themselves. Then we were surprised to hear to hear the news from a satellite channel that they had reached Jordan,” he said. “Praise God in the end that all of them were released safely.”

For its part, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a letter to the United Nations that was shared with the media that the Syrian army had held its fire in the area “out of concern for the security and safety of the UN forces.”

It called on the U.N. to “unequivocally condemn the attacks of those terrorist groups against civilians and work to dislodge those terrorist groups immediately from the region.”

The Syria government says the uprising is a foreign-backed conspiracy to weaken the country carried out by “terrorists” – its blanket term for the opposition.

Many rebel groups operate independently, despite efforts by the Syrian opposition to unify the fighters under one command. The abduction appeared to have been such a local initiative, and leaders of the political opposition repeatedly urged the Jamlah rebels to free the hostages.

On Friday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland warned the rebels that holding the peacekeepers “is not good for them, it's not good for their reputation.”

The peacekeepers are part of a U.N. monitoring mission known as UNDOF. It was set up in 1974, seven years after Israel captured the plateau and a year after it managed to push back Syrian troops trying to recapture the territory in another regional war.

The U.N. monitors have helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria.

But in recent months, Syrian mortar shells overshooting their target have repeatedly hit the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. In Israel's most direct involvement so far, Israeli warplanes struck inside Syria in January, according to U.S. officials who said the target was a convoy carrying anti-aircraft weapons bound for Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia allied with Assad and Iran.

Israeli officials have expressed concern that the violence might prompt UNDOF to end its mission.

On Friday, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said “the mission in the Golan needs to review its security arrangements and it has been doing that.”

He said the mission has been looking at different scenarios and arrangements on how to operate “in these new rather difficult and challenging circumstances.”

It was the first time that Filipino peacekeepers, of whom 600 are deployed worldwide and 333 in the Golan Heights, have been seized. The incident has prompted President Benigno Aquino III to review the Philippines' contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations.

The Syria conflict began two years ago, starting with largely peaceful protests against Assad. A harsh regime crackdown triggered an armed insurgency that has turned into a full-scale civil war.

The U.N. estimates that the conflict has claimed more than 70,000 lives and forced nearly 4 million people from their homes. The fighting has devastated large areas of the country.

Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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