Syria rebels seize UN peacekeepers
Damascus (AFP): UN officials on Thursday said that negotiations were under way with Syrian rebels who seized 21 UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights...
Damascus (AFP): UN officials on Thursday said that negotiations were under way with Syrian rebels who seized 21 UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights ceasefire zone between Syria and Israel, as rebels took total control of the key northern city of Raqa. Syrian rebels on Wednesday abducted the peacekeepers from the Philippines as the frontiers of their war against President Bashar al-Assad spread further. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for their immediate release and demanded the Syrian government and rebels to respect their freedom of movement and security. The UN said that it was trying to negotiate the release of the soldiers, while a rebel spokesman said that the troops would be held until Assad's forces pulled back from a Golan village. Officials in Manila urged the troops, who are a part of a 300-strong Filipino peacekeeping unit, to be released immediately. Philippine armed forces spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos said that the rebels were treating the hostages well. "They are being treated as guests, not as hostiles," Burgos said, adding, "We have high hopes that they are going to be released soon." Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who read the Security Council statement on the situation, said that the rebels have made demands directed at the Syrian government, but gave no details. The United Nations has reported a growing number of incidents in the Golan over the past year. It has sent extra armoured vehicles and communications equipment to reinforce security for the mission. The Britain-based watchdog Syrian Observatory for Human Rights distributed two amateur videos with statements by the rebel Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade claiming the capture. A man identified as brigade spokesman Abu Kaid al-Faleh said that the peacekeepers would not be freed until Syrian regime forces pulled out of the area. "If they do not withdraw, these men (UN troops) will be treated as prisoners," he said, accusing the UN Disengagement Force (UNDOF) of working with the army to try to suppress the insurgency. UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters after briefing the Security Council that negotiations are underway. Meanwhile, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned that one million Syrians have fled their homeland since the revolt erupted two years ago. "With a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally and thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiralling towards full-scale disaster," Guterres said.