Middle East

U.N. peacekeepers seized by Syrian rebels freed

Filipino UN peacekeepers cross the Quneitra checkpoint between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights on March 9, 2013. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI

AMMAN, March 9, 2013 (AFP) - Filipino UN peacekeepers seized by Syrian rebels on the Golan arrived in Jordan on Saturday, hours after their captors released them from an ordeal of more than three days.

"They arrived in Jordan; they are on Jordanian land now," Jordanian government spokesman Samih Maaytah told AFP in Amman.

The Philippines ambassador in Amman, Olivia V Palala, also confirmed that the peacekeepers had arrived in Jordan from neighbouring Syria where rebels battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seized them on Wednesday.

"They are apparently inside Jordanian territory now. I am heading to the borders to meet them," Palala told AFP.

Earlier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the soldiers, who were abducted in the Golan Heights, had been released and were on their way to the border with Jordan and freedom.

Authorities in Manila gave a cautious welcome to the news.

"We cannot confirm yet. We are hearing it from television but they have not even shown a video. So we sent our men there from the UN force to verify," said military spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos.

"Of course that would be great news but we have to be careful," he told AFP.

The abduction of the 21 peacekeepers was condemned by world powers and triggered a flurry of diplomatic action to secure their release.

It also sparked fears that more governments would withdraw their contingents from the already depleted UN mission.

Israeli officials warned that any further reduction in UNDOF strength risked creating a security vacuum in the no-man's land between the two sides on the strategic Golan plateau, which it seized in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The Filipinos, members of UNDOF monitoring the armistice line between Syria and Israel that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, were abducted just a mile to the Syrian side of the line.

Rebels from the Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade who seized them demanded that Syrian troops move 20 kilometres (12 miles) back from Jamla.

The Observatory said the rebels were also demanding that the International Committee of the Red Cross "guarantees the safe exit from the strife-torn area of Jamla of civilians," Abdel Rahman said.

On Friday a UN convoy attempted to pick up the Filipino peacekeepers but had to abort the operation and was forced to pull back by a barrage of Syrian army shelling.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said the village where the soldiers are being held was coming under intense shelling but the Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari insisted that everything was being done to get them out safely.

Late on Friday, Abdel Rahman quoted the rebels as saying a deal had been reached between the Syrian regime and the UN for a truce between 0800 and 1000 GMT on Saturday to allow the Red Cross to evacuate the men.

It was the first abduction of its kind since the conflict erupted in Syria nearly two years ago.

Ladsous and Philippines officials had said the peacekeepers were safe during their ordeal.

In video clips posted on the Internet, the men also said they were cared for by local villagers and given water and food.

Meanwhile, Syrian troops bombarded several rebel-held areas near Damascus, where 10 people, including three children, were killed in clashes between troops and rebels, the Observatory said.

In the northwest, near the Turkish border, several areas were the target of regime bombings that also left three children from one family dead in the village of Deir Sita.

The violence on Saturday comes after a day that saw at least 146 deaths across the country, according to the Observatory.





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