Damascus: Twenty-one United Nations peacekeepers have been released by the Syrian opposition fighters and handed over to the Jordanian authorities on Saturday which has ended new strains in the region that produced a three-day stalemate.
UN officials confirmed the release of the peacekeepers, hailed from the Philippines, and said that they all arrived “well and unharmed.”
The release of the troops ended a drama that began on Wednesday when a rebel faction that has long operated in the south of Syria, known as the Martyrs of Yarmouk, seized the soldiers, part of a four-nation United Nations force that monitors the demilitarized zone between Syria and the portion of the Golan Heights that Israel captured in 1967. Fighting from the Syrian conflict in recent months has occasionally spilled over into the zone and the surrounding Syrian area the peacekeepers patrol, raising concerns about instability along the sensitive border.
The seizure created a political challenge for the leadership of the disparate rebel movement that has been trying to assert tighter control of the loose-knit fighters under their command, and drew criticism from some antigovernment activists who said that taking the peacekeepers hurt their cause.
The Martyrs of Yarmouk initially accused the peacekeepers of aiding the Syrian military, which rebels said was attacking villages in the area, and declared it would not release them until the army pulled out. But, apparently under pressure from the opposition’s leadership, the opposition fighters quickly disowned those claims and demands, saying they had detained the troops to protect them from the fighting in the area. The fighters then began negotiations to turn the peacekeepers over to the United Nations.
After a tense 24 hours — in which the United Nations said a convoy tried to rescue the soldiers but turned back because of Syrian government shelling in the area — the fighters themselves transported the prisoners to the Jordanian border.
“They are safe now; we have delivered them across the border, praise be to God,” said the fighters’ commander, who gave only his nickname, Col. Abu Mahmoud, for security reasons. “We took them to keep them safe because they were going through a very dangerous area and they were our guests, and we protected them with our own chests,” he added.
The Filipino soldiers were turned over to the Jordanian Army, given checkups in a military hospital, then handed over to United Nations officials and the ambassador from the Philippines, according to Samih Maaytah, Jordan’s Minister of State.
The opposition leadership accused the Syrian government of trying to kill the detained peacekeepers with artillery attacks and blame the rebels for their deaths. The Syrian government, meanwhile, pointed to the seizure of the soldiers as evidence that the fighters pose an international threat along the Golan Heights border.
After United Nations officials called for a cease-fire around the village of Jamlah, where the Filipino troops were being held in several basements, the administrator of the Facebook page for the Martyrs of Yarmouk wrote, “Do you mean you want a cease-fire just for a few hours and then they can burn the entire area and its residents?? Dear God.”
Later on Saturday, the United Nations thanked all the parties involved in the release and stressed that all combatants should protect civilians.
In a statement, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also urged both sides in the Syrian conflict to recognize the neutrality of United Nations observers, to guarantee their freedom of movement and safety and to “respect and uphold the protection of civilians.”