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Syrian rebels free U.N. peacekeepers held in Golan

MYT 11:55:01 PM

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian rebels on Sunday freed four Filipino U.N. peacekeepers whom they had captured on the ceasefire line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights last week.

The rebels from the Yarmouk Martyrs' Brigade had said they were holding the soldiers for their own safety after clashes with Syrian government forces had put them in danger.

A United Nations vehicle leaves a U.N. base near the Kuneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights May 8, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
A United Nations vehicle leaves a U.N. base near the Kuneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights May 8, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

A rebel spokesman said the four were handed over on Sunday morning at a border checkpoint called Beit Ara, in an area where the Jordanian and Israeli borders join with the Golan Heights.

"They have been handed over in a spot in the Yarmouk Valley," Abu Iyas al-Horani told Reuters.

Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario confirmed to Reuters in Manila that the four had been released.

They were seized on Tuesday as they patrolled close to an area where the same rebel group held 21 Filipino observers for three days in March.

An earlier report by Jazeera English website quoted sources as saying the four had been transferred to Israel. But Horani said his information was they were more probably handed over to the Jordanian authorities.

Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan, a spokesman for the Philippine armed forces, said the four had already been taken back to their battalion in the U.N. peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights.

They would have medical checks and be debriefed, but appear to have suffered no harm, Tutaan said in a statement.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moom said that Qatar - which has close ties to some of the rebel groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad - had helped in securing their safe release.

Ban said the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was there to keep the peace between Israel and Syria in the Golan. He called on all parties to respect the freedom of movement, safety and security of its personnel.

The two-year-old uprising in Syria has increasingly crossed borders, threatening to draw other countries into a conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people.

The Philippines said it aimed to pull out 342 soldiers on peacekeeping duties in Golan after the latest abduction.

Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East War and later annexed them, a move not recognised internationally.

(Reporting by Manny Mogato in Manila, Yara Bayoumy in Dubai, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman.; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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