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Syrian rebels free Philippine peacekeepers

Filipino UN peacekeepers cross the Quneitra checkpoint between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights on March 8, 2013
Filipino UN peacekeepers cross the Quneitra checkpoint between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights on March 8, 2013. Syrian rebels have freed four Filipino United Nations peacekeepers five days after they were seized at an observation post in the Golan

Syrian rebels Sunday freed four Filipino peacekeepers five days after seizing them in the Golan Heights, the Philippines said as it called on combatants to respect United Nations personnel.

The four were turned over by a Syrian rebel group which calls itself the "Yarmuk Martyrs' Brigade" to the head of the Filipino contingent five days after they were taken at an observation post, chief military spokesman Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan told AFP.

"We are happy that this has been resolved and the soldiers have been released and seemingly unharmed," Tutaan said. "They are fine, but as a matter of procedure they will have to undergo stress debriefing and a medical check-up."

The Department of Foreign Affairs said the four had been escorted to UN-controlled Camp Ziuoani in the Golan Heights.

The Philippines expressed "deep appreciation" for the return of the four, but reiterated its call for combatants not to harm or impede the movements of UN peacekeepers anywhere in the world.

The Filipinos were seized on Tuesday as they patrolled the Jamlah locality in the tense ceasefire zone between Syria and Israel.

The Syrian rebels, in a video they released of the kidnapped Filipinos last week, said the abduction was carried out so that forces loyal to besieged Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad could not take refuge with them.

An image from a video on YouTube, May 8, 2013, reportedly shows four abducted Filipino UN peacekeepers in Syria
An image taken from a video posted on YouTube on May 8, 2013 reportedly shows a man reading a statement behind four abducted Filipino UN peacekeepers in Syria.

Manila had called on the Security Council to exert all efforts to ensure their safe release, and warned it may withdraw its contingent of 340 troops permanently if the UN could not adequately protect them.

In March, 21 Filipino soldiers were abducted by the same group and held for four days.

The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has been monitoring a ceasefire in the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria since 1974.

The ceasefire zone has become increasingly dangerous because of the two-year-old Syrian civil war, which has cost more than 70,000 lives.

Syrian government forces and rebels are fighting inside the area. Shells from the Syrian side have been hitting Israeli-held territory and Israel's military has been firing back.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Friday the Philippines may soon pull out of UNDOF entirely because of the mounting security concerns.

"The people that abducted our peacekeepers were actually under siege and they are using our people to get themselves out of the situation they find themselves in. That thing is not for us," del Rosario said.

"We don't want to expose our people any further, any more than we need to," he said.

UNDOF numbers about 1,000 peacekeepers and civilian staff from Austria, India, Morocco, Moldova and the Philippines.

Deputy presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte declined to comment when asked if del Rosario's recommendation still stood despite the release of the rebels.

Brigadier General Tutaan said the Philippine military would leave any decision on pulling out the troops to the government, but stressed no decision had been reached.

"It's a matter that the government has to decide. We will just wait for instructions from the higher ups in the matter of their being recalled," he said.

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