By JIM GOMEZ
CORRECTS DAY HOSTAGES WERE RELEASED TO SATURDAY INSTEAD OF FRIDAY- Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr. gestures as he talks to reporters about the 21 freed Filipino U.N. peacekeepers during a press conference at Camp Aguinaldo military headquarters in suburban Quezon City, north of Manila, Philippines on Sunday March 10, 2013. Rebels in southern Syria freed 21 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers on Saturday after holding them hostage for four days, driving them to the border with Jordan after accusations from Western officials that the little-known group had tarnished the image of those fighting to topple President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Rebels who held 21 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers in Syria put blankets on their hostages to help them sleep through the cold nights and a rebel commander became visibly emotional when his group released the men, a U.N. peacekeeping official said Sunday.
Despite the good treatment they got from the insurgents fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, the peacekeepers were relieved to have survived the four-day ordeal unscathed and were thankful for U.N. and Philippine government efforts that set them free, said Philippine army Col. Cirilito Sobejano, who is the chief of staff of the U.N.’s monitoring mission in the Golan Heights.
The unarmed Filipino army soldiers, who were riding in trucks, were abducted by anti-Assad gunmen after providing water and food to other peacekeeping troops Wednesday in southern Syria near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. After tough negotiations, they were freed Saturday on Jordan’s border and taken to a hotel in the Jordanian capital of Amman, Philippine officials said.
A medical checkup showed the released hostages were all in good health.
“They were in high spirits. We were laughing about their experiences,” Sobejano told The Associated Press by telephone from Amman. “They had a cordial relationship with their captors, who put blankets on them because it was very cold at night.”
“When they were handed over in Jordan, a rebel commander got visibly sad,” he said. “They were really treated as guests.”
At the Amman hotel, the peacekeepers were welcomed with a “boodle fight” — a Philippine military mess-hall style of eating, where food is usually laid out on banana leaves atop a long table and soldiers eat with their hands, said army Col. Roberto Arcan, who heads the military’s peacekeeping operations center in Manila.
Arcan said he talked by phone with one of the freed peacekeepers, army Maj. Dominador Valerio, who asked him to “please tell my wife I’m OK,” Arcan said, adding he immediately relayed the good news to the officer’s wife.
Raul Hernandez, spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, said Sunday that the plan was for the 21 peacekeepers to stay in Jordan for two days before they return to the Golan Heights.
But the abductions have raised concerns about the future of U.N. operations in the area.
A Filipino army major and his driver were held at a checkpoint in the Golan Heights by anti-Assad rebels last January but were released after about four hours, Arcan said.
The freed peacekeepers from a 326-member Filipino contingent in the Golan Heights are part of a U.N. mission known as UNDOF that was set up to monitor a cease-fire in 1974, seven years after Israel captured the plateau and a year after it pushed back Syrian troops trying to recapture the territory.
The truce’s stability has been shaken in recent months, as Syrian mortar shells have hit the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, sparking worries among Israeli officials that the violence may prompt UNDOF to end its mission.
On Friday, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said “the mission in the Golan needs to review its security arrangements, and it has been doing that.”
More than 600 Philippine security personnel are deployed in nine U.N. peacekeeping areas worldwide, Arcan said.
Asked if the incident in Syria would prompt the Philippines to withdraw its peacekeeping personnel around the world, military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Burgos said that the deployments would continue, but that assessments would be made to better safeguard the peacekeepers in increasingly hostile areas.
“This is a global commitment,” Burgos said Sunday at a news conference in Manila.
President Benigno Aquino III said last week that he has asked the military to assess whether large numbers of Filipino peacekeepers should be reduced to help address his country’s growing security needs.
“There is a delicate balance,” Aquino said. “All of these deployments have a vital function. We are part of a global community. If there’s peace in the Middle East, it also helps us.”
But he asked: “Can we afford to send this number of people?”
Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.