Syrian fighters agree on deal to release kidnapped U.N. peacekeepers

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A group of 21 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers seized by Syrian opposition fighters on the Golan are expected to be freed Saturday during a two-hour truce between the insurgents and government forces, a watchdog said.

“An agreement has been reached between the Syrian regime and the United Nations to stop the bombing between 10:00 a.m. (0800 GMT) and noon (1000 GMT) on Saturday, in order to allow the evacuation of the 21 peacekeepers,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP late Friday.

“A Red Cross delegation should accompany the U.N. team to the area” to evacuate the peacekeepers, the Britain-based watchdog said.

The U.N. peacekeepers held by the Free Syrian Army in the southern Syrian village of Jamla are in a “safe place and are well-treated,” one of the hostages told Al Arabiya television in an interview early on Saturday.

The peacekeeper, who identified himself as Michael, said he spoke on behalf of the 20 others, adding that they were told their release will be at 7:30 in the morning.

In the Philippines, a military spokesman said the government still expects its members of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) to be released despite shelling late on Friday that prevented an earlier handover.

A convoy of U.N. vehicles, that was sent to pick them up on Friday, pulled out when the army shelled the area, a watchdog said Friday.

“When the U.N. vehicles entered into Jamla, the Syrian army shelled a nearby village. The U.N. cars then withdraw from Jamla,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman, who said earlier that the group was willing to hand over their captives.

Army spokesman Colonel Randolph Cabangbang said in Manila on Saturday that the shelling had since stopped.

“After the shelling the two parties (UN and the rebels) resumed coordinating the arrangements for their release,” Cabangbang told AFP.

“The planned venue of the handover was not actually shelled. It was the route that they planned to take.”

The men are part of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights since 1974.

Their capture just a mile (1.6 km) from Israeli-held lines is further evidence of how Syria’s conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over into neighboring countries.

In New York, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said Jamla was under intense bombardment from army forces, though he did not specify whether he was referring to the village or areas surrounding Jamla.

Ladsous also said he hoped a possible ceasefire would lead to the freeing of the peacekeepers, who have been held by rebels since Wednesday.

The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force has been tasked since 1974 with ensuring a ceasefire between Israel and Syria is respected in the Golan Heights, large parts of which are occupied by the Jewish state.

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