Rebels in Syria Release U.N. Peacekeepers to Jordan, Easing Crisis in Border Zone

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ANTAKYA, Turkey -- Syrian rebels released 21 detained United Nations peacekeepers to Jordanian forces on Saturday, ending a standoff that had raised new tensions in the region and new questions about the fighters just as the United States and other Western nations were grappling over whether to arm them.

The rebels announced the release of the Filipino peacekeepers, and Col. Arnulfo Burgos, a spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, confirmed it.

In announcing the release, a commander of the Martyrs of Yarmouk rebel brigade, which detained the soldiers, disavowed earlier rebel assertions that the United Nations soldiers were being held hostage to force the Syrian government to stop shelling the area. He said they had been held for their safety.

"They are safe now; we have delivered them across the border, praise be to God," said the 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."

The seizure of the troops on Wednesday increased fears that the Syrian conflict was causing instability in the sensitive border area. The peacekeepers are part of a four-nation force that patrols the disputed Golan area between Israel and Syria.

The taking of the peacekeepers had become a political football. The rebel leadership accused the Syrian government of trying to kill the peacekeepers with artillery attacks and blame the rebels for their deaths. The Syrian government, meanwhile, pointed to the seizure as evidence that the rebels pose an international threat along the Golan Heights border.

And rank-and-file rebels and activists accused the international community of mobilizing more effectively and enthusiastically to rescue the soldiers than to help the millions of Syrians suffering under assaults by government troops fighting to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power.

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."

The seizure of the troops -- coming amid intensified international talks about increasing assistance to the rebels -- highlighted the difficulty that commanders face in persuading would-be donors that they can control the widely dispersed and decentralized groups of fighters under their nominal command.

The stakes for the handoff were high: the rebel commanders could point to a successful transfer of the United Nations soldiers as proof that rebel units, even if they make mistakes, can respond to orders responsibly. If the soldiers came to harm, it could have further undermined the willingness of nations to send peacekeepers to the Golan, where Israel has said it will not hesitate to intervene if it feels threatened.

The abductors initially posted a statement saying they would hold the prisoners until the Syrian government stopped shelling the area. But under apparent pressure from the rebel leadership, they declared that they had taken them into custody for the soldiers' own protection.

Asked why the fighters changed their story, Colonel Abu Mahmoud said, "The only reason we asked that regime forces pull back from the area was so we could ensure a safe passage for the observers."

The rebels posted a video on Thursday that showed three peacekeepers in blue flak jackets sitting stiffly on a couch. The commander of the Martyrs of Yarmouk, smiling broadly, clambered between two of them, put his arms around them and posed as the third soldier leaned in and smiled. Other videos showed the soldiers saying they were being treated well.

An antigovernment activist from Idlib Province in Syria who gave his name as Obaida said the rebels had made a mistake in taking the soldiers.

"We don't want the world to be more against us," he said. "They are already against us, so we shouldn't be involved in such operations."

Rebels reached an agreement to hand over the troops to a United Nations and Red Cross convoy on Thursday, but heavy shelling prevented the convoy from reaching the area, United Nations officials said.

The rebel military command said Saturday in a statement that government shelling in Jamlah and the nearby villages of Maaraba and Kuweya had killed more than 50 civilians and wounded about 350.

"This is being done with the aim to kill the international observers to exploit their cause for political purposes," the statement said. The government denied shelling the village, saying it was targeting rebels around it in an effort to rescue the prisoners.

Colonel Abu Mahmoud said that he and his fighters had moved them to the Yarmouk valley near the Jordanian border because shelling of Jamlah made it impossible for United Nations to rescue them from there.

Anne Barnard reported from Antakya, and Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Antakya and Floyd Whaley from Manila.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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