Syrian rebels have freed 21 UN peacekeepers and have handed them over to Jordanian authorities, an international peace envoy to Syria says.

Mokhtar Lamani, the Damascus representative of the new UN-Arab League peace envoy to Syria, said the peacekeepers crossed into Jordan on Saturday afternoon.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the release, but said all sides in the conflict must respect the UN's "impartiality".

Ban "appreciates the efforts of all concerned to secure their safe release," said a statement released by his press office.

Live Box 2011421105226899357

The peacekeepers, all Filipinos, were seized on Wednesday and were being held in the village of Jamlah, near Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Yarmouk Martyrs brigade, a rebel group, claimed to be behind the kidnapping.

The UN force has been monitoring an Israeli-Syrian ceasefire for four decades without incident, and the abduction of the 21 men added another destabilising twist to Syria's civil war.

The Syria conflict began two years ago, starting with largely peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A government crackdown triggered an armed uprising that has turned into a full-scale civil war.

The UN estimates that the conflict has claimed more than 70,000 lives and forced nearly four million people from their homes. The fighting has devastated large areas of the country.

Israel seized the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War. UN peacekeepers have been monitoring the armistice line that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, in which Syria tried to recapture the territory.

Grateful nation

"The Philippine government and its people express deep appreciation to the Jordanian government and military officials on the successful safe passing over to the Jordanian side of all our 21 Filipino peacekeepers," a statement said on Sunday.

Military spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos said the peacekeepers' battalion commander and one of the freed officers had personally confirmed by telephone hat they were in Jordanian custody.

"The 21 peacekeepers are in the custody of the Jordanian border patrol headquarters. The Philippine ambassador is coordinating directly with Jordanian authorities and is ready to receive the 21 peacekeepers," he told reporters.

He said the group's commander had already met with the freed men, adding that they would be staying in a hotel in Amman for two days before being transferred back to the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

 

Source: Agencies