Syrian rebels release 4 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers

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DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syrian rebels on Sunday released four Filipino U.N. peacekeepers they abducted last week in a dramatic incident that prompted warnings from the Philippines that the nation might pull out its contingent from the Golan Heights.

Meanwhile, a Syrian official said President Bashar Assad's troops have the right to enter the Israeli-occupied Golan whenever they wish -- a veiled threat toward Israel to stay out of Syria's conflict.

The four Filipinos, seized Tuesday, were apparently unharmed, but they will undergo a medical checkup and stress debriefing, said Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan.

A statement by the rebel group holding the peacekeepers -- the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade -- said the four were handed over to a U.N. delegation in the border area Sunday, but provided no other details.

The peacekeepers are part of a U.N. contingent that patrols a buffer zone between Syria and the Golan Heights, a plateau Israel captured from Syria in 1967.

It was the second abduction of Filipino peacekeepers since March, when 21 were held for three days by rebels fighting Mr. Assad's troops.

The Philippine foreign secretary has said he would recommend withdrawing Filipinos from the peacekeeping contingent in Syria, but the final decision is up to the country's president.

Nearly 1,000 U.N. peacekeepers patrol the Golan. Other major contributors are India and Austria. Croatia recently withdrew its contingent.

The buffer zone has been largely quiet for four decades, but tensions have risen there since the outbreak of the revolt in Syria more than two years ago.

In Damascus, Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told a news conference Sunday that Syria has the right to enter the Golan Heights.

"The Golan is Syrian Arab territory and will remain so, even if the Israeli army is stationed there. We have the right to go in and out of it whenever we want and however we please," he said.

His comments came in response to last week's Israeli airstrikes on Syria, which Israeli officials say targeted advanced Iranian missiles intended for Lebanon's Hezbollah.

The strikes marked a sharp escalation of Israel's involvement in the Syrian civil war and raised fears that a conflict that has repeatedly spilled over Syria's borders could turn into a regional war.

Syria has threatened to retaliate but the official response was relatively mild.

"Israel should understand that the Syrian skies are not a picnic for anyone," Mr. Zoubi warned.

"We are a people who do not forget to retaliate against those who commit aggression against us, and we do not forget our martyrs or those who killed them," he said.

Israeli officials had no comment.

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