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Syria rebels free UN peacekeepers

A U.N. peacekeeper from the Philippines crosses back from Syria at the Quneitra Crossing between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights,Thursday, March 7, 2013. Clashes between Syrian troops and rebel fighters flared on Thursday near an area where armed fighters linked to the opposition abducted 21 U.N. peacekeepers a day earlier. The peacekeepers are part of a force that monitors a cease-fire between Israeli and Syrian troops in the Golan Heights. Israel captured part of the territory in the 1967 Mideast war, and while the area has been peaceful for decades, Israeli officials have grown increasingly jittery as the Syrian civil war moves closer to its borders. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)   | Photo Credit: Ariel Schalit

Syrian rebels on Saturday freed 21 U.N. peacekeepers after holding them hostage for four days, ending a sudden entanglement with the world body that earned those 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 ceasefire 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.

The peacekeepers were seized on 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.

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.

Mr. 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.

“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.”

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.”


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