Philippines upbeat on Syria hostage handover

The Philippines still expects its 21 UN peacekeepers held hostage in the Golan Heights to be freed despite shelling by Syrian forces that scuttled a handover.

A UN convoy that entered the Syrian village of Jamla on Friday to pick up the Filipinos abducted by rebels pulled out when the Syrian army shelled the area, according to a human rights watchdog.

Philippine Army spokesman Colonel Randolph Cabangbang said in Manila that the shelling had since stopped and the UN negotiators had resumed planning another arrangement with the rebels for the hostage handover.

"After the shelling the two parties (UN and the rebels) resumed coordinating the arrangements for their release," Cabangbang told AFP.

"The planned venue of the handover was not actually shelled. It was the route that they planned to take," he said without elaborating on the new arrangement for the handover.

Another Philippine spokesman said that the government had confirmation from the ground that the hostages, who were abducted on Wednesday, were safe.

"They are being kept (by the rebels) in a safe area," said Colonel Arnulfo Burgos.

The UN force has been tasked since 1974 with ensuring a ceasefire between Israel and Syria, and the hostages are part of a 300-member Philippine Army force deployed there since November last year.

On Wednesday, the rebel Yarmuk Martyrs brigade claimed the capture of the Filipinos soldiers.

The rebels said they would hold them until troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad withdrew from the area of Jamla, which lies east of the ceasefire line.

On Friday, the rebels called for a ceasefire, to allow the evacuation of the peacekeepers.

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