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Syrian rebels free 21 U.N. peacekeepers

By Amir Ahmed, CNN
updated 4:11 PM EST, Sat March 9, 2013
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh greets U.N. peacekeepers after their release on the Syria-Jordan border Saturday.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh greets U.N. peacekeepers after their release on the Syria-Jordan border Saturday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Ban Ki-moon "welcomes" the peacekeepers' release
  • Twenty-one U.N. peacekeepers are handed to Jordanian officials at border with Syria
  • Rebels initially said peacekeepers, all Filipinos, were trying to aid their enemy
  • Then they said they were just trying to keep them out of harm's way

(CNN) -- Twenty-one U.N. peacekeepers detained by Syrian rebels this week have been handed over to Jordanian authorities at the border with Syria, the Free Syrian Army told CNN Saturday.

Jordanian officials confirmed the release and added their government had no coordination nor agreement in the handover, said spokesman Samih Maaytah. Official protocol was followed, he added.

The 21 peacekeepers were turned over at the Syrian-Jordanian border at Yarmouk valley on Saturday, Free Syrian Army chief of staff General Salim Idris told CNN.

Rebels had detained the peacekeepers, identified by the Philippine government as Filipino, in a Syrian village near the Golan Heights.

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Syrian opposition coalition President Moaz al-Khatib says the rebels took the peacekeepers for their own safety due to fighting there. The peacekeepers reportedly are unharmed.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "welcomes" the release of the peacekeepers, the organization said in a statement. The peacekeepers have an impartial role, the statement said, and the secretary-general called for both sides in the conflict to respect the freedom of movement and security of his personnel.

Fighting in the area resumed in the villages near the Jordanian border following the handover, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported.

The group reported 63 deaths across Syria on Saturday.

International tension had grown this week after about 30 Syrian rebels detained the peacekeepers and refused to let them go.

The United Nations and Filipino government demanded their release.

The consul general of Philippine embassy in Jordan confirmed the release, and said the peacekeepers were being transported to Amman.

The rebels initially said that the peacekeepers were trying to aid their enemy -- the regime of President Bashar al-Assad -- when they entered a Syrian village near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, an area where peacekeepers should not be and where intense fighting has been raging for days between rebels and government forces.

Al-Khatib then said the peacekeepers were taken to protect their safety and that of a U.N. convoy in an area under bombardment for seven days.

CNN's Caroline Faraj contributed to this report.

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