Rebels free UN peacekeepers in Syria

Rebels free UN peacekeepers in Syria

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 this 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.

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.

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.”

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.

Yesterday US 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 UN 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 UN 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 US 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.

Yesterday, UN 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”.

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