Abducted UN peacekeepers 'safe'

Abducted UN peacekeepers 'safe'

Several United Nations peacekeepers from the Philippines who were abducted by Syrian rebels said in videos posted online today that they are safe and sound.

But activists reported clashes and shelling in the area where UN troops are being held.

Opposition fighters detained 21 Filipino peacekeepers near the village of Jamlah in the Golan Heights yesterday.

The abduction marked the first time since UN troops began patrolling an Israeli-Syrian armistice line in the Golan Heights nearly 40 years ago that UN forces have encountered trouble during their mission, said Timor Goksel, a Beirut-based former United Nations official in the region.

One of the videos shows three men dressed in camouflage and blue bullet-proof vests emblazoned with the UN and “Philippines.”

“We, the UN personnel here, are safe, and the Free Syrian Army are treating us good,” one of them says in English. “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.”

The second video shows six peacekeepers sitting in a room. An officer, who identifies himself as a captain, says that as their convoy came under shelling “we stopped and civilian people helped us for our safety and distributed us in different places to keep us safe.”

A spokesman for the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, which is holding the peacekeepers, told The Associated Press via Skype that all the 21 peacekeepers “are fine and in good health.”

“We consider them guests,” he added.

The targeting of the peacekeepers was likely to heighten Israeli jitters about the Syrian civil war upsetting the delicate balance along the frontier between the two countries. Israel captured Syria’s Golan Heights in the 1967 Mideast war, and a UN monitoring force, UNDOF, was sent in 1974, a year after another Mideast war, to enforce an armistice deal between Syria and Israel.

The rebel spokesman said the peacekeepers’ job was to ensure that no heavy weapons, such as tanks, enter the area near the Israeli-Syrian armistice line. For months, the regime has been bringing tanks into the area to fight rebels, he said, adding that helicopter gunships joined the battle late last week.

Asked if the rebels will be ready to hand over the peacekeepers to an international organisation, he said “the command will have to decide about that.” He added that once these peacekeepers leave the area the regime could kill “as many as 1,000 people.”

He said at least 10 people have been killed and dozens wounded in the shelling of Jamlah and nearby villages.

Today, Syrian troops battled rebel fighters near the Golan Heights, in the southern Syrian province of Daraa, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group.

In Manila, the Philippine government said the peacekeepers were unharmed and were being treated well. It said the UN force commander in the area is negotiating with the leader of the rebel group.

The UN Security Council has demanded their immediate and unconditional release.

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