UN hostages released into Jordanian custody
Filipino UN peacekeepers cross the Quneitra checkpoint between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights on Saturday. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)
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A group of 21 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers seized by Syrian rebels in the Golan were handed over to Jordanian authorities on Saturday, just after the expiry of a deadline for their release, a watchdog said.
“The peacekeepers have been transferred from the (Golan) village of Jamla, where they were held, towards the Yarmuk valley on the frontier with Jordan ahead of their release,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman, who is in contact with the abductors.
Clashes between Syrian rebels and regime forces erupted Saturday near a village where the U.N. peacekeepers are being held hostage, an activist said, possibly delaying earlier efforts to free them.
The Free Syrian Army said on Saturday they had gained control of the main routes between Damascus and Deraa, according to activist reports.
On Friday, citing the rebels, he said an agreement had been reached between the Syrian regime and the U.N. for a cessation of hostilities between 0800 and 1000 GMT on Saturday to allow a Red Cross team to evacuate the 21 peacekeepers.
The agreement came after the failure of an earlier planned handover, with a U.N. convoy that had entered Jamla to pick up the group pulling out when the Syrian army shelled the area.
The situation in Jamla was calm early on Saturday, but by the end of the morning, “fighting broke out between rebels and soldiers, when the insurgents attacked an army unit in Aabdine, three kilometers (two miles) south of Jamla,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.
The Filipinos, members of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (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 on Wednesday.
The rebels have demanded that Syrian troops move 20 kilometers (12 miles) back from Jamla.
The U.N. peacekeepers said they were in a “safe place and are well-treated,” one of the hostages told Al Arabiya television in an interview early on Saturday.
The peacekeeper, who identified himself as Michael, said he spoke on behalf of the 20 others, adding that they were told their release will be at 7:30 in the morning.