Syrian rebels 'want to release UN troops'

Philippine military says captors of 21 Filipino peacekeepers want them escorted out of conflict zone by the Red Cross.

    Syrian rebels who seized 21 Filipino UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights want the Red Cross to escort them out of the area, according to the Philippine military.

    Colonel Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos, Philippine military spokesman, said on Thursday the rebels said the peacekeepers have to be removed because there was heavy fighting with Syrian government forces.

    The peacekeepers were seized on Wednesday near the Syrian village of Jamlah, just 1.5km from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in an area where the UN patrols a ceasefire line between Israel and Syria.

    Burgos said the information came from the UN command in the Golan Heights, which was negotiating for the release of the peacekeepers.

    "They want the ICRC to pick them up and escort them," Burgos said.

    "Hopefully they will really be released and we are also waiting for that."

    The peacekeepers said in videos posted online on Thursday that they were being treated well.

    "We cannot go home because the government of [President Bashar] Assad do not stop the bombing. To our family, we hope to see you soon and we are OK here," they said.

    A second video showed six peacekeepers sitting in a room. An officer, who identified himself as a captain said that as their convoy came under shelling on Wednesday, "we stopped and civilian people helped us for our safety and distributed us in different places to keep us safe".

    Earlier, the rebels, calling themselves the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, demanded in video statements that Syria withdraw its troops from Jamla and neighbouring villages in the area.

    "If they do not withdraw, these men will be treated as prisoners," Abu Kaid al-Faleh, the group's purported spokesman, said, accusing the UN force of working with the Syrian army against the rebels.

    The captive troops are part of a 300-strong Philippine contingent to a UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) that has been monitoring the separation of Israeli and Syrian troops since the 1974 armistice that followed the previous year's Middle East war.

    At the end of February, UNDOF comprised some 1,000 peacekeepers but a growing number of incidents over the past year has made it increasingly difficult for the UN to keep the mission up to strength.

    Canada and Japan had already withdrawn their small contingents and Croatia announced last week it was pulling out its 100 troops.

    The Philippine president said no decision had yet been made on the future of Manila's contingent but its withdrawal would leave just Austrian and Indian troops.

    Israeli officials warned that any further reduction in the strength of UNDOF risked creating a security vacuum in the no-man's land between the two sides on the strategic Golan Heights.

    Violence continued to rage across Syria and activists reported the deaths of 130 people on Thursday alone.

    The UN says more than 70,000 people have been killed in the country since an uprising against the regime of Assad began two years ago.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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