World Bulletin / News Desk
Rebels holding 21 U.N. peacekeepers near the Golan Heights in southern Syria say government forces must leave the area before they free their "guests", an activist in touch with the fighters said on Thursday.
Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted a spokesman for the "Martyrs of Yarmouk" rebel brigade as saying the peacekeepers were being held as "guests" in the village of Jamla, about a mile (1.6 km) from a ceasefire line with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
"He said they will not be harmed. But the rebels want the Syrian army and tanks to pull back from the area," Abdelrahman said after speaking to the rebel spokesman on Thursday morning.
The Philippine government condemned the capture of the peacekeepers - three officers and 18 enlisted men - which it called a "gross violation of international law".
President Benigno Aquino told reporters the peacekeepers were being well treated and that the United Nations was in touch with the rebels to ensure their safety. "By tomorrow they expect all of these 21 to be released," he said, adding their release might occur as early as Thursday.
Aquino said both sides in the Syrian conflict considered the United Nations a "benign presence" in the country - a view not shared by many Syrian rebels, who hold the organisation at least partly responsible for a lack of international support.
In a video released to announce the capture of the U.N. convoy on Wednesday, a member of the Yarmouk Martyrs' Brigade accused the peacekeepers of collaborating with Assad's forces to try to push them out of village of Jamla which the rebels seized on Sunday after heavy fighting.
Peacekeepers of the U.N. Disengagement Force (UNDOF) mission have been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, for nearly four decades.
The U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the seizure of the observers and demanded their immediate release.
"The U.N. 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 Jamla," the United Nations said, referring to a village which saw fierce clashes on Sunday.
It said the peacekeepers were taken by around 30 fighters.
In one rebel video, a young man saying he was from the Martyrs of Yarmouk brigade stood surrounded by several rebel fighters with assault rifles in front of two white armoured vehicles and a truck with "UN" markings.
"The command of the Martyrs of Yarmouk ... is holding forces of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force until the withdrawal of forces of the regime of Bashar al-Assad from the outskirts of the village of Jamla," he said.
At least five people could be seen sitting in the vehicles wearing light blue U.N. helmets and bulletproof vests. "If no withdrawal is made within 24 hours we will treat them as prisoners," the man said.Last Mod: 07 Mart 2013, 14:06