Freed UN peacekeepers cross into Jordan from Syria
Published Saturday 09/03/2013 (updated) 12/03/2013 10:21
A Filipino United Nations peacekeeper directs a car at the Kuneitra
border crossing between Israel and Syria, in the Israeli occupied
Golan Heights March 9, 2013. (Reuters/Baz Ratner)
AMMAN (Reuters) -- Twenty-one United Nations peacekeepers captured by Syrian rebels and held for three days in a southern Syrian village crossed safely into neighboring Jordan on Saturday, rebels and a UN official in Damascus said.
The Filipino peacekeepers were taken by the Martyrs of Yarmouk rebel brigade to the border, about 10 km south of the village of Jamla where they had been held since being captured on Wednesday.
"They are all on the Jordanian side now and they are in good health," said Abu Mahmoud, a rebel who said he had crossed over into Jordan with them.
In the Syrian capital, Mokhtar Lamani, who heads the Damascus office of UN-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, confirmed that the men had crossed into Jordan.
The Jordanian government initially appeared taken by surprise by the arrival of the peacekeepers - who had been expected to be retrieved instead by a UN convoy inside Syria and possibly taken to Damascus.
That convoy was held up earlier on Saturday in a village north of Jamla, a rebel activist said.
The group - part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force that has been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights since 1974 - was seized by the Martyrs of Yarmouk rebel brigade three days ago.
They were held in Jamla, a village one mile from the Israeli-occupied Golan and 6 miles north of the Jordan border. After their capture insurgents described them as "guests" and said they would be freed once President Bashar Assad's forces withdrew from around Jamla and stopped shelling.
A brief truce was agreed on Saturday morning to allow for the peacekeepers' retrieval. Although the two-hour window of that ceasefire passed at midday before they could be extracted, the relative calm prevailed long enough for the rebels to take them south to Jordan.
A rescue effort on Friday was delayed by heavy bombardment and abandoned after nightfall, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said.
Syria's two-year civil war has spilled periodically across the Golan Heights ceasefire line and Syria's borders with Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, threatening to engulf the region. The conflict began as peaceful protests, but turned violent when Assad ordered a crackdown on the demonstrations.
Ladsous warned on Friday that once the peacekeepers were freed, "we would strongly expect that there would not be retaliatory action by the Syrian armed forces over the village and its civilian population".
Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari said the army had been targeting areas outside Jamla where he said the rebels were concentrated, not the village itself. "We know for sure what we are doing and we know where the peacekeepers are," he said.
"The Syrian government forces are doing exactly what they have to do in order to bring back safely the peacekeepers, guarantee the safety and security of the inhabitants of these villages (and) get these armed group terrorists out of the area."
In several videos released on Thursday, the peacekeepers said they were being treated well by civilians and rebels.
The United Nations said the captives had been detained by about 30 rebel fighters, but Abu Issam Taseel, a Martyrs of Yarmouk activist, said the men were "guests", not hostages, and were being held for their own safety.
Under an agreement brokered by the United States in 1974, Israel and Syria are allowed a limited number of tanks and troops within 20 km of the disengagement line.
A UN report in December said both the Syrian army and rebels had entered the demilitarized area between Syrian and Israeli forces. It said that violence in the area showed the potential for escalation across the frontier, jeopardizing the ceasefire between the two countries.