UNITED NATIONS — Twenty-one U.N. peacekeepers being held by Syrian rebels for three days were set free Saturday before safely crossing the border into Jordan, according to senior U.N. officials and rebel commanders.
It marked the end of one of the most dramatic U.N. hostage crises in years and followed days of intense U.N. negotiations to secure the release against a backdrop of intensive fighting between Syrian forces and rebel fighters.
Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping, said: "All 21 peacekeepers are well and unharmed."
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's office issued a statement welcoming the Filipino peacekeepers' release and urging the combatants to respect the U.N. peacekeepers' freedom of movement and the safety of the U.N. personnel in Syria, where they are monitoring a decades-old truce along the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria.
Ban also urged the warring parties to "respect and uphold the protection of civilians," reflecting persistent concerns that Syrian authorities may retaliate against villagers in Jamlah, where rebel forces held the peacekeepers in home basements.
On Friday, the United Nations' top peacekeeping official, Herve Ladsous, cited evidence that Syrian forces had been shelling the town. Syria's U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jaafari, denied it.
Negotiations for the release of the peacekeepers took place between rebels from the Free Syrian Army and the United Nations and did not involve the Syrian government or military, according to rebel fighters.
Clashes erupted between the Syrian military and rebels as the freed peacekeepers were on their way to the Jordanian border, rebel fighters said.
"There was heavy fighting between the Free Syrian Army and regime forces to secure safe passage for the observers," said Fahed Masri, an FSA spokesman.
There had been heavy fighting in and around Jamlah for days before the capture of the U.N. group, and some rebel fighters accused the peacekeepers of passing information about their movements to Syrian military.