Syrian rebels release UN peacekeepers

BEIRUT -- Syrian rebels freed 21 UN peacekeepers Saturday after holding them hostage for four days, ending an entanglement with the world body that earned fighters trying to oust President Bashar Assad a flood of negative publicity.

The episode is bound to prompt questions about UN operations in war-torn Syria. The peacekeepers were part of a force that has spent four decades monitoring an Israeli-Syrian cease-fire without incident.

The Filipino peacekeepers crossed from Syria to safety in Jordan Saturday afternoon, said Mokhtar Lamani, the Damascus representative of the UN-Arab League peace envoy to Syria.

The peacekeepers were seized Wednesday and were held in the village of Jamlah in southwestern Syria.

Their captors from the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades initially said they would release the hostages only after Syrian troops withdrew from the area.

However, as the abduction made headlines, the rebels eventually dropped their demand and began negotiating a safe passage for the peacekeepers with UN officials. On Friday, a UN team tried to retrieve the hostages, but aborted the plan because of heavy regime shelling of the area.

Saturday, another UN team headed toward Jamlah to try again, said a rebel spokesman, who spoke via Skype, insisting on anonymity for fear of reprisals.

He said the UN team aborted the mission because of fighting in the area, and that the rebels instead escorted the hostages to the Syrian-Jordanian border.

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