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UN Expects to Free Hostages in Syria Saturday



U.N. officials say they have completed arrangements for the release of 21 Philippine peacekeepers held in the Golan Heights by Syrian rebels, and the handover is expected to take place Saturday.

A U.N. convoy tried to pick up the peacekeepers late Friday, but was forced to turn back by shelling and airstrikes carried out by Syrian government forces. Subsequently, U.N. officials said, "arrangements were made with all parties" for the hostages' release, "but due to the late hour ... it was considered unsafe to continue the operation."

U.N. authorities said they hope to complete the rescue mission and reach the Philippine peacekeeping troops on Saturday.

The initial attempt to retrieve the hostages Friday ended when U.N. vehicles had to retreat under fire after reaching Jamla village, where the hostages have been held.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous briefed Security Council members in New York Friday and confirmed to reporters that Syrian forces shelled and bombed Jamla.



Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari, also in New York, refuted claims that troops are bombing Jamla, telling reporters they are targeting the suburbs of the villages where armed groups are concentrated.

The peacekeepers from the Philippines are part of a 1,000-plus force that patrols a zone between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights. They were detained Wednesday by Syrian rebels who have identified themselves as the Martyrs of Yarmouk.

U.N. officials have been negotiating their release with rebel commanders, who are demanding that Syrian government troops leave the area. President Bashar al-Assad has not commented on the incident.

Video posted online by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights shows some of the Philippine peacekeepers. One peacekeeper, who identified himself as the captain, said he and his men were safe.

The observatory says the rebel group is fighting for villages in the area and has been operating independently.

Both the U.N. and the Philippines have strongly condemned the seizure.

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