Attempts to free UN peacekeepers fail

March 9, 2013 | By More

Beirut: Syrian rebels holding 21 UN peacekeepers near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in southern Syria said on Friday no talks were under way to free the men and gave no indication that they would be released soon.

The men are part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights since 1974.

Their capture just a 1.6 km from Israeli-held lines is further evidence of how Syria’s conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over into neighbouring countries.

“There are no negotiations between any parties,” said Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the “Martyrs of Yarmouk” brigade that captured the Filipino peacekeepers on Wednesday.

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In several videos released on Thursday, the peacekeepers said they were being treated well in the village of Jamla by civilians and rebels opposed to President Bashar Al Assad.

The United Nations said the captives had been detained by around 30 rebel fighters, but Taseel said the men were “guests”, not hostages, and were being held for their own safety.

However, he said they would only be released once Al Assad’s forces retreated from around Jamla and halted bombing there.

“Negotiations should be between (the United Nations) and the regime of Bashar Al Assad to stop the bombing and lift the blockade of the area so it can be safe,” Taseel said.

The spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, Raul Hernandez, said the rebels had been expected to free the peacekeepers early Friday.

“I don’t know exactly know what happened, why the expected release did not happen, but the demand is still there” for the Syrian forces to pull back, he told reporters in Manila.

He said that the Philippine government continues to “work with all stakeholders for the expeditious release of our Filipino UN peacekeepers.”

The Damascus government has not commented publicly about the incident.

Overnight, eight UN peacekeepers left their post in the Golan Heights and entered Israel.

“There are eight UN Disengagement Observer Force soldiers who were evacuated from a post in the demilitarised zone on the Syrian Golan Heights,” an Israeli Defence Forces spokeswoman said. “IDF soldiers in co-ordination with the UN met them near the border and escorted them into Israel.”

On Monday, EU foreign ministers will hold talks with the international mediator on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, days after the bloc renewed wide-ranging sanctions against President Bashar Al Assad’s regime. The ministers will discuss how best to support efforts to resolve the impasse in Syria through political, not military means.

There are wide differences about how far to go in that objective, with Britain in favour of military aid for the opposition while Germany and others say that is too risky.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned Thursday that “delivering weapons always involves the danger of an arms race and slipping into a proxy war that could push the whole region into a broader conflict”.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme has said it aims to feed 2.5 million Syrians next month, up from 1.7 million today, because of rising needs as more Syrians are displaced by the civil war.

 

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