Syria rebels urged to release UN peacekeepers

Talks under way with Syrian opposition-linked captors of 21 Filipino ceasefire observers in occupied Golan Heights.

Armed fighters linked to the Syrian opposition have detained about 21 UN peacekeepers in the increasingly volatile zone separating Israeli and Syrian troops on the Golan Heights.

The UN Security Council and Philippine government demanded their immediate and unconditional release on Thursday.

“The Philippine government is calling for the immediate release of 21 Filipino peacekeepers who are part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights,” a foreign ministry statement said.

Later on Thursday a video was released showing the peacekeepers, with one of them saying they were safe and being cared for.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights posted the video which shows six uniformed members of UNDOF.

An officer who identifies himself as a member of the Filipino battalion says he and his men were in “a safe place” and had stopped in the village of Jamla because of bombing and artillery fire in the area.

“Civilian people helped us for our safety and distributed us in different places to keep us safe. They gave us good accommodation and gave us food to eat and water to drink,” he said.

Talks to secure release

Talks were under way for the release of the unarmed peacekeepers, who were detained on Wednesday, Raul Hernandez, Philippines foreign affairs department spokesman, said.

The foreign affairs department spokesman said that the Filipino peacekeepers were unharmed.

“The apprehension and illegal detention of the Filipino peacekeepers are gross violations of international law,” the statement said.

The hostages are part of a 300-member Filipino peacekeeping unit.

Colonel Arnulfo Burgos, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, told Al Jazeera’s Marga Ortigas that the abducted peacekeepers are “safe” and being “treated as guests” by the Syrian fighters.

The UNDOF force was established in 1974 following the 1973 Yom Kippur war to monitor the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces and maintain a ceasefire.

Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador andthe current Security Council president, said talks were under way between UN officials from the peacekeeping force and the captors.

‘Particularly unacceptable’

Herve Ladsous, UN peacekeeping chief, who briefed the council behind closed doors, identified the captors as being from a group associated with the Syrian armed opposition, Churkin said.

“There was no fighting, according to his briefing to us,” Churkin said.

“My understanding is that they took over the trucks in which the UNDOF personnel was moving around.”

Churkin said the capture of the peacekeepers “is particularly unacceptable and bizarre” because the UNDOF peacekeepers are unarmed and their mission has nothing to do with Syria’s internal conflict.

“They are there on a completely different mission so there is no reason at all under any circumstances, any kind of sick imagination to try to harm those people,” he said.

Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, also condemned the capture of the peacekeepers, Eduardo del Buey, UN deputy spokesman, said.

Del Buey said the UN observers were on a regular supply mission when they were stopped by approximately 30 armed fighters near an observation post that was damaged in heavy combat last weekend and had been evacuated.

The rebels have accused the peacekeepers of assisting the Syrian regime to redeploy in an area near the Golan that the fighters had seized a few days ago in battles that left 11 fighters and 19 regime forces dead.

A man identified as Abu Qaed al-Faleh, spokesman for the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, announced the group is holding the peacekeepers until Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces withdraw from Jamlah.

“They will not be released until after Bashar Assad’s forces withdraw from the village of Jamlah bordering Israel,” the man said.

Churkin urged countries with influence on the Syrian opposition to use it to help free the peacekeepers. He did not name any countries but Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are known to have been providing military aid to some Syrian rebel groups.

Escalating tension

Israel is concerned that Syrian weapons could fall into the hands of hostile groups and be used against Israel.

Itl captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967.

UN has sent extra armoured vehicles and communications equipment to reinforce security for the mission.

Shells from the Syrian side have landed in the ceasefire zone and on Israeli territory, and Syrian government tanks have entered the zone several times, according to the UN.

Up to the end of February there were about 1,000 troops from Austria, Croatia, India and the Philippines operating in UNODOF.

But Croatia announced last week that it was withdrawing its 100 troops from UNDOF.

The Croatian government said it feared for the soldiers’ safety after reports that Saudi Arabia had bought arms from Croatia and then provided them to the Syrian rebels.

Canada and Japan withdrew their small contingents in recent months because of security fears.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies