Sun, Mar 10, 2013 - Page 7 News List

UN tries to free staff held in Syria

Reuters, BEIRUT and UNITED NATIONS

The UN hoped to retrieve 21 peacekeepers from Syrian rebels yesterday during a two-hour truce agreed to by Syrian troops and opposition groups after a release bid was abandoned on Friday, the UN and an opposition group said.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said the Filipino peacekeepers were being held in the basements of four houses in the village of Jamla, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which was being subjected to intense shelling by Syrian troops.

The peacekeepers — part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights since 1974 — were seized by the Martyrs of Yarmouk rebel brigade on Wednesday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said the warring parties in Syria were aiming for a ceasefire in the area between 10am and 12pm so the peacekeepers could be released.

The UN said arrangements were made for the handover of the men on Friday, but “due to the late hour and the darkness, it was considered unsafe to continue the operation.”

Abu Essam Taseel, a rebel spokesman, said a convoy to collect the men had reached Nafea village, about 1km east of Jamla, but was unable to venture further because of intense Syrian army bombardment.

The UN peacekeepers were seized in Syria 1.6km from Israeli-held lines.

The Martyrs of Yarmouk rebels had said they would handover the peacekeepers once government forces retreated from around Jamla and halted bombing there.

Ladsous warned that once the peacekeepers were released, “we would strongly expect that there would not be retaliatory action by the Syrian armed forces over the village and its civilian population.”

Syrian UN ambassador Bashar Ja’afari told reporters that the army was targeting areas outside Jamla where he said the rebels were concentrated, not the village itself.

“The Syrian government forces are doing exactly what they have to do in order to bring back safely the peacekeepers, guarantee the safety and security of the inhabitants of these villages [and] get these armed group terrorists out of the area,” Ja’afari said.

Rebel spokesman Taseel said three army tanks and two military cars had pulled back from around Jamla, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were still deployed around it and bombarding the region.

In several videos released on Thursday, the peacekeepers said they were being treated well by civilians and rebels.

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

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