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21 Filipino peacekeepers released in Syria

March 9, 2013 at 6:26 PM

DAMASCUS, Syria, March 9 (UPI) -- Rebel forces in Syria released 21 U.N. peacekeepers Saturday, three days after detaining them in a contested area of the Golan Heights, U.N. officials said.

"The armed group that had detained the 21 peacekeepers transported them to the Jordanian border, where they were met by Jordanian officials," U.N. Department of Peacekeeping spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero said. "All 21 peacekeepers are well and unharmed."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office issued a statement welcoming the development and reminding combatants of U.N. peacekeepers' right to freedom of movement, The Washington Post reported.

Ban emphasized "to all parties the impartiality of the United Nations," and urged both sides in the Syrian civil war to "respect and uphold the protection of civilians."

At first, rebels said they detained the U.N. soldiers because they weren't supposed to be in the region. They later said they took the men to protect them during a harsh bombardment of the area by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, CNN reported.

The peacekeepers, a contingent from the Philippines, were unharmed and turned over to Jordanian officials at the border. A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army said there had been "heavy fighting" between rebel forces and forces loyal to Assad "to secure safe passage for the observers," the Post reported.

Some rebels said they had proof the peacekeepers were helping the Syrian military by providing information about the rebels' operations, the Post said.

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