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Syrian rebels release kidnapped UN peacekeepers

Seizure of troops increased fears about security

Some of the UN peacekeeping troops freed by Syrian rebels waited to address a news conference at the Jordanian army headquarters in Amman on Saturday.

Muhammad Hamed/REUTERS

Some of the UN peacekeeping troops freed by Syrian rebels waited to address a news conference at the Jordanian army headquarters in Amman on Saturday.

ANTAKYA, Turkey — Syrian rebels said they had released 21 UN peacekeepers to Jordanian forces on Saturday in an apparent end to a standoff that raised new tensions in the region and new questions about the fighters just as the United States and other Western nations were grappling over whether to arm them.

The release was confirmed by Mokhtar Lamani, who heads the Damascus office of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League mediator, according to news service reports.

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A commander of the Martyrs of Yarmouk rebel brigade, which detained the soldiers, disavowed earlier rebel assertions that the UN soldiers were being held hostage to force the Syrian government to stop shelling the area and said they had been held for their safety.

‘‘They are safe now; we have delivered them across the border, praise be to God,’’ said the commander, who gave only his nickname, Colonel Abu Mahmoud, for security reasons. ‘‘We took them to keep them safe because they were going through a very dangerous area and they were our guests, and we protected them with our own chests.’’

The seizure of the troops on Wednesday increased fears that the Syrian conflict was causing instability in the sensitive border area. The peacekeepers, who are Filipino, are part of a four-nation force that patrols the disputed Golan area between Israel and Syria.

The taking of the peacekeepers had become a political football. The rebel leadership accused the Syrian government of trying to kill the peacekeepers with artillery attacks and blame the rebels for their deaths. The Syrian government, meanwhile, pointed to the seizure as evidence that the rebels pose an international threat along the Golan Heights border.

And rank-and-file rebels and activists accused the international community of mobilizing more effectively and enthusiastically to rescue the soldiers than to help the millions of Syrians suffering under assaults by government troops fighting to keep President Bashar Assad in power.

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After UN officials called for a cease-fire around the village of Jamlah, where the Filipino troops were being held in several basements, the administrator of the Facebook page for the Martyrs of Yarmouk wrote, ‘‘Do you mean you want a cease-fire just for a few hours and then they can burn the entire area and its residents? Dear God.’’

The seizure of the troops — coming amid intensified international talks about increasing assistance to the rebels — highlighted the difficulty that commanders face in persuading would-be donors that they can control the widely dispersed and decentralized groups of fighters under their nominal command.

The stakes for the handoff were high: the rebel commanders could point to a successful transfer of the UN soldiers as proof that rebel units, even if they make mistakes, can respond to orders responsibly.

If the soldiers came to harm, it could have further undermined the willingness of nations to send peacekeepers to the Golan, where Israel has said it will not hesitate to intervene if it feels threatened.

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