Sat, Mar 09, 2013 - Page 6 News List

Red Cross ‘must escort UN peacekeepers’

AP and Reuters, MANILA and London

Syrian rebels who seized 21 Filipino UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights want the Red Cross to escort them out of the area because of fighting with Syrian government forces, the Philippine military said yesterday.

The 21 peacekeepers were seized on Wednesday near the Syrian village of Jamlah, just 1.6km from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights in an area where the UN force had patrolled a ceasefire line between Israel and Syria without incident for nearly four decades.

Philippine military spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos said that the rebels were willing to release the peacekeepers and asked for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to escort them to a safe area.

According to Burgos, the rebels said the peacekeepers have to be removed because there was heavy fighting in the area.

He 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 that they were being treated well.

“To our family, we hope to see you soon and we are OK here,” a peacekeeper shown in one video said. He was one of three troops dressed in camouflage and blue bullet-proof vests emblazoned with the words “UN” and “Philippines.”

However, a rebel spokesman seemed to suggest the hostages were also serving as human shields. If the UN troops are released and leave the area, the regime could kill “as many as 1,000 people,” the spokesman said via Skype and did not give his name for fear of reprisals.

Meanwhile, the EU was right not to arm anti-government fighters in Syria, because doing so would risk regional “conflagration,” Germany said on Thursday, highlighting divisions in the region over how to handle the Syrian crisis.

“The decision of the EU not to lift in total the embargo was wise and was right, but it is necessary to show more flexibility and to understand that we have of course to support the ... opposition in a responsible way,” German Minister of Foreign Affairs Guido Westerwelle told reporters at a briefing in London.

“We have to avoid a conflagration in the whole region,” he added.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Sunday that Britain did not rule out in future arming rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

On Wednesday, Hague went further, announcing that Britain would send the rebels armored vehicles and saying that the EU should be ready to take further steps if no political solution to the conflict is found.

An EU embargo prevents weapons being supplied to Syria’s rebels, but sanctions have been amended in recent weeks to allow more non-lethal equipment, such as body armor.

Hague added that Britain was ready to take “any domestic measures” if further amendments to EU sanctions could not be agreed.

The EU arms embargo rolls over every three months and Syrian opposition officials have repeatedly called for it to be lifted.

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