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Syria rebels seize Filipino UN peacekeepers in Golan Heights

1st Philippine Peacekeeping Contingent to the Golan Heights.(file/Elmer Cato/DFA)
The online news portal of TV5

UNITED NATIONS -- (UPDATE 3 - 3:58 p.m.) The Philippines on Thursday strongly condemned the hostage-taking of 21 Filipino UN peacekeepers by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights ceasefire zone and demanded their immediate release.

The soldiers, part of a 300-strong Filipino peacekeeping unit, were detained at a rebel observation point on Wednesday by gunmen who said the troops would be held until Syrian regime forces pulled back from a Golan village.

"The Philippine government strongly condemns the illegal detention of 21 Filipino peacekeepers under the United Nations command in the Golan Heights," Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a statement.

Del Rosario said their detention was a gross violation of international law, pointing out they were operating under the UN flag, and called for the hostages to be immediately released.

Aquino optimistic

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III expressed optimism the 21 would be released quickly.

"I understand they are being treated well... so far, nobody has been saying that they are in danger," he told reporters.

Aquino said UN peacekeeping leaders in the Golan were negotiating with the Syrian rebels.

"They (UN chiefs) expect all of these 21 to be released," he said.

However a rebel spokesman said the troops would be held until forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pulled back from the village, and also accused the UN peacekeepers of favoring Israel.

A UN Disengagement Force has been monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974.

The United Nations has reported a growing number of incidents in the Golan over the past year. It has sent extra armored vehicles and communications equipment to reinforce security for the mission.

Up to the end of February there were about 1,000 troops from Austria, Croatia, India and the Philippines operating in the ceasefire force.

But Croatia announced last week it was withdrawing its 100 troops from UNDOF because it feared for the soldiers' safety. Canada and Japan have also withdrawn their small contingents in recent months because of security fears.

Aquino said no decision had been made on whether to pull the rest of the Filipino peacekeeping unit out of the Golan Heights.

In Manila, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos Jr. confirmed the abduction and said the captive soldiers, whow ere seized Wednesday night, Philippines time, are "all well."

He said the seized troops, who include officers, are among the 300-strong contingent sent by the AFP November last year.

About 30 armed fighters stopped a UN Disengagement Force (UNDOF) convoy in the ceasefire zone, where the UN has had peacekeepers monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974, UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey told reporters.

"The UN observers were on a regular supply mission and were stopped near Observation Post 58, which had sustained damage and was evacuated this past weekend following heavy combat in close proximity, at Al Jamlah," he added.

There has been fierce fighting around Jamlah village, which is held by opposition forces.

The UN Security Council released a statement which said "armed elements of the Syrian opposition" had abducted the group of more than 20 peacekeepers and demanded their "unconditional and immediate" release.

"Negotiations are going on and the matter is mobilizing all our teams," UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters after briefing the Security Council on the abduction. "It is a very serious incident."

Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who read the Security Council statement, said the rebels have made demands directed at the Syrian government but did not give details. "We hope they are going be released immediately," Churkin told reporters.

Syrian rebels are also believed to be holding an UNDOF staffer who was seized last month. The staffer is from Canada, according to diplomats.

UN diplomats and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman said the peacekeepers were from the Philippines.

Rahman released two videos in which a rebel group, the Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade, set out their demands for the release of the peacekeepers.

In one, a man identified as Abu Kaid al-Faleh, a spokesman for the brigade, said the peacekeepers would not be freed until Syrian government forces pull back from the area.

"We call on them to withdraw all their troops to their bases. If they do not withdraw, these men (UN troops) will be treated as prisoners," he said.

In a second video, the same spokesman accused the UNDOF of working with the army to try to suppress the insurgency and help regime forces enter Jamlah.

"The Syrian regime, the UN and the European countries are all collaborators with Israel," he said.

 (with a report from Abigail Kwok,