Syria rebels free 21 UN peacekeepers

Syria rebels free 21 UN peacekeepers

Syrian rebels today freed 21 UN 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 UN 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 this afternoon, said Mokhtar Lamani, the Damascus representative of the UN-Arab League peace envoy to Syria.

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

Today, another UN 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 UN 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 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."

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.

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