DAMASCUS, March 9 (Xinhua) -- The 21 UN peacekeepers snatched recently by Syrian rebels at the southwestern village of Jamla near the border with Jordan and the Israel-occupied Golan Heights were released Saturday after "long and arduous" negotiations with the captors, a UN official told Xinhua.
Mokhtar Lamani, head of the office of the UN-Arab League joint special envoy to Syria, told Xinhua in an interview Saturday that the UN representatives in Syria had been in constant contact with all concerned parties, including the armed groups, in order to secure the release of the 21 Filipino members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights, who were detained by armed elements linked to the Syrian opposition Wednesday.
The kidnappers asked for halting the Syrian troops' shelling against their area to swap the release of the UN members, said Lamani, adding that the Syrian government and army have promised to do so. "I think the shelling was halted through last night as we were told."
He, however, noted that the captors had been divided before the release, saying that "we were surprised that the (kidnapper) group was dallying with what it has promised to do. There have been great differences among them," Lamani said.
After hours of waiting, "We were surprised when one TV said that the peacekeepers had crossed into Jordan," he said, stressing that delivering the peacekeepers to Jordan hadn't been coordinated with the UN at all.
Meanwhile, Syria's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Syria has shown full cooperation with the UNDOF command by totally and unilaterally halting shooting "out of concern for the security and safety of the UN forces."
The statement added that "Syria was surprised when being told that the gunmen have transferred the captured forces to Jordan, instead of releasing them unconditionally and handing them over to the UNDOF Command, a matter that will encourage armed terrorist groups to repeat such kinds of events."
"Syria has repeatedly warned against the outcome of the presence of those terrorists in the (UNDOF) forces' area," the ministry said, underlining the necessity that the UN should " clearly and unequivocally condemn the attacks of those terrorist groups against civilians... and work to dislodge those terrorist groups immediately from the region."
Earlier, the UN and AL condemned the kidnapping and called for the immediate release of the UN staffers.
The kidnapping incident is the first of its kind since the conflict in Syria started almost two years ago. UNDOF was established to implement and oversee a ceasefire between Syria and Israel.
While the UN peacekeepers' release grabbed the headlines, violence on ground continued across the unrest-torn country on Saturday.
The state-run SANA news agency said that armed groups fired a mortar shell against a distribution center of cooking gas in the capital Damascus' suburb of Adra, triggering off a fire in one of the gas tankers.
Quoting a source at the Oil Ministry, SANA said that the " terrorist attack" has caused damage in one of the gas pipelines without causing any casualties, adding that firefighters have managed to put out the fire.
Meanwhile, Syrian forces clashed with rebels at the southern Damascus' suburb of Jober, said SANA, adding that many gunmen were killed.
Clashes also took place in the suburbs of Douma, Hajjira, Daraya and Zabadani, said SANA, reporting heavy losses among the armed groups.
On the opposition side, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the occurrence of heavy clashes between government troops and members of al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front at the 17th regiment, north of the northeastern city of al-Raqqa.
"There are reports of human losses on both sides," the Observatory said, adding that rebels from the Nusra Front have surrounded the town of Ein Issa in Raqqa.
Meanwhile, the Observatory posted a video footage showing the Nusra Front interrogating the governor of Raqqa, Hassan Jalili, and the head of the ruling al-Baath party brunch there, Sulaiman al-Sulaiman. Both have been kidnapped by the Nusra fighters since last week.
The rebels have attacked al-Raqqa from several directions and managed to take hold inside governmental establishment in the city amid government assurances that the presence of the rebels in the city "is a matter of time only," according to Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi.
The Observatory also said that rebel Islamic brigades have imposed the Islamic law (Sharia) in eastern parts of Syria that have fallen under the rebels' control and formed a committee to oversee the implementation of Sharia.
"The Committee has taken the rights to assume the role of executive, legislative and judicial powers, establishing a police force, courts, fatwa offices, humanitarian aid, and the role of guiding people on the right path of God. The Sharia Committee has also sent a video showing off their military capabilities," the Observatory said.
Amid the mounting danger of the radicals' existent on ground in Syria, prominent clergyman Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti called a day earlier on Syria's grand mufti to declare the general mobilization to back the Syrian troops in its battles against the "mercenaries."
"We are today in front of a legitimate duty... which is the need of mobilization to protect the values, the homeland and the holy sites, and there is no difference, in this case, between the army and the rest of this nation," he said.