Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Rebels free 21 UN peacekeepers

Some of the UN peacekeepers at a press conference after their arrival in Jordan (AP)

Rebels in southern Syria freed 21 UN peacekeepers yesterday after holding them hostage for four days.

They drove them to the border with Jordan after accusations from Western officials that the little-known group had tarnished the image of those fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

The abduction and the tortured negotiations that ended it highlight the disorganisation of the rebel movement, which has hindered its ability to fight Assad and complicates vows by the US and others to provide assistance. It also has raised concerns about the future of UN operations in the area.

The Filipino peacekeepers were abducted on Wednesday by one of the rebel groups operating in southern Syria near the Jordanian border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where a UN force has patrolled a ceasefire line between Israel and Syria for nearly four decades.

They released videos online, including one of a bearded rebel commander with his arms around two peacekeepers' shoulders, flashing a V for victory sign.

On Saturday, after negotiations that the top UN official in Damascus described as "long and difficult," the rebels changed the plan to deliver the peacekeepers to a UN team, instead taking them to the Jordanian border.

Video broadcast by Arab satellite channels late on Saturday showed them sitting at a round conference table in Amman, their bright blue helmets in front of them.

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

Raul Hernandez, spokesman for the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs, said the initial plan for the peacekeepers is for them to stay in Jordan for two days before they return to the Golan Heights. "They are safe, they are unharmed, they are OK, and they are whole," he said.

It was the first time in nearly two years of violence in Syria that UN personnel have been directly caught up in the civil war, which evolved from an uprising against Assad that broke out in March 2011 and has left more than 70,000 people dead.

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