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UN peacekeepers seized by Syrian rebels freed

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

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.

The UN and the Philippines ambassador in Amman also confirmed that the peacekeepers had crossed safely into Jordan from Syria where rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad seized them on Wednesday.

"We can confirm that the peacekeepers have been released," UN peacekeeping spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero said in New York.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the release but said all sides in the Syrian conflict must respect the United Nation's "freedom of movement."

Ban "appreciates the efforts of all concerned to secure their safe release," said a statement released by his press office after the 21 Filipinos crossed from Syria into Jordan.

Ambassador Olivia V Palala told AFP the peacekeepers were heading from the borders to the Royal Armed Forces headquarters in eastern Amman, and are unharmed.

"We contacted them and they are all ok, safe and sound," she said.

Palala, who earlier expected to meet them at the border, said she was now waiting for the peacekeepers at the headquarters of Jordan's armed forces.

"They are on their way now to Amman, they will be coming by 7:30 pm (1730 GMT)," she said, adding that future plans for them will be made in coordination with the United Nations.

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.

In an initial reaction officials in Manila welcomed the news.

The abduction was condemned by world powers and triggered a flurry of diplomatic action to secure the peacekeepers' 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," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory, said.

On Friday a UN convoy attempted to pick up the Filipinos 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 were 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 on Saturday 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 latest violence comes after at least 146 people were killed deaths across the country on Friday, according to the Observatory.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130309/un-peacekeepers-seized-syrian-rebels-freed