Syrian rebels refuse to free UN staff until regime exits

AFP, DAMASCUS

Fri, Mar 08, 2013 - Page 1

Syrian rebels held hostage 21 UN peacekeepers patroling the sensitive armistice line with Israel for a second day yesterday, defying a chorus of international condemnation and calls for their release.

Diplomats scrambled to secure the release of the 21 Filipinos, as concern mounted that their seizure might prompt more governments to withdraw their contingents from the already depleted UN mission.

Israeli officials warned that any further reduction in the strength of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) risked creating a security vacuum in the no-man’s land between the two sides on the strategic Golan Heights.

The Philippine soldiers were detained at a rebel post on Wednesday just one-and-a-half kilometers to the Syrian side of the armistice line.

The rebels, calling themselves the Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade, demanded in video statements that Damascus withdraw its troops from Jamla and villages in the area.

Manila strongly condemned the seizure of its troops and demanded they be released immediately, a call echoed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Britain-based watchdog the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had spoken to the rebels who had given undertakings that the hostages would not be harmed.

“They say they will treat them well, as guests, and set them free as soon as the army withdraws from Jamla and surrounding villages,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he had received similar assurances.

The captive troops are part of a 300-strong Philippine contingent to the UN force 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 last month, UNDOF comprised about 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Canada and Japan had already withdrawn their small contingents and Croatia announced last week it was pulling out its 100 troops.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters after briefing the Security Council that negotiations were underway to secure the peacekeepers’ release.

In video statements distributed by the Observatory, a rebel spokesman said the peacekeepers would not be freed until Syrian regime forces pull out of the area.

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