UN Urges Syrian Rebels to Free Detained Peacekeepers

The United Nations demanded that armed Syrian rebels immediately release 21 UN Filipino peacekeepers who were seized near a post in the Golan Heights.

The abduction by “armed elements of the Syrian opposition” occurred yesterday near al-Jamlah, at an observation post inside the Golan plateau’s so-called area of limitation separating Israel and Syria, the UN said in a statement. The peacekeepers were taken by about 30 rebels while on a supply mission near the post, which had been evacuated over the weekend after heavy fighting in the area, the UN said.

The Security Council held a closed-door meeting in New York on the incident and called for the peacekeepers’ “unconditional and immediate release,” Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said in a statement afterward. Russia holds the presidency of the 15-member council this month.

The UN troops’ detention marks the latest spillover of the two-year civil war in Syria between opposition groups and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The conflict has killed more than 70,000 people and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said yesterday that 1 million refugees had fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and other countries.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino told reporters in Manila he hoped the peacekeepers would soon be freed. Churkin said the council urged all parties to cooperate with the UN observation force “in good faith to enable it to operate freely and to ensure full security of its personnel,” according to a statement.

Rebel Video

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based opposition group that documents the conflict, said the peacekeepers were being held by the Yarmouk Brigade rebels. The observatory sent a video it said showed rebel forces standing in front of UN vehicles. There was no independent confirmation that the rebel faction is responsible.

Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, said the organization is working with the Syrian government to secure the soldiers’ release. “Syria is responsible for the safety and security of the UN personnel,” Guerrero said in an interview.

The captors are demanding the withdrawal of Syrian army troops from the area around al-Jamlah, according to an e-mailed statement from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that cited the brigade’s leader, who was identified as Abu Kaled al-Faleh.

Observer Force

The UN mission in the Golan Heights has sent a team to assess the situation and seek a solution, according to Eduardo del Buey, a spokesman for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The group’s formal name is the UN Disengagement Observer Force, or Undof.

“The Secretary-General reminds all actors in Syria that Undof is mandated to monitor the Disengagement of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria,” according to a statement from Ban released by his office. “Undof’s freedom of movement and safety and security must be respected by all parties.”

The peacekeepers are part of the observer force that has helped maintain the cease-fire between Israel and Syria since 1974. The mission has 1,011 troops, and 40 international staff, with military personnel from countries including Austria, Croatia, India and the Philippines.

The Golan Heights peacekeeping operation was extended in December until June. At least 43 international peacekeepers and one civilian have been killed in the four-decade operation.

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