Syria rebels: No talks under way to free observers

Despite statements from Syrian opposition, rebel group refuses to release 21 UN peacekeepers until demands are met.

By REUTERS
March 8, 2013 15:12
2 minute read.
Six of the Filipino UN peacekeepers held by Syria rebels.

UN peacekeepers held by Syria rebels 370. (photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)

BEIRUT - Rebels holding 21 UN peacekeepers near the Israeli border in southern Syria said on Friday no talks were under way to free the men and gave no indication that they would be released soon.

"There are no negotiations between any parties," said Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the "Martyrs of Yarmouk" brigade that captured the Filipino peacekeepers on Wednesday.

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The men are part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights since 1974.

Their capture just a mile (1.6 km) from Israeli-held lines is further evidence of how Syria's conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over into neighboring countries.

In several videos released on Thursday, the peacekeepers said they were being treated well in the village of Jamla by civilians and rebels opposed to President Bashar Assad.

The United Nations said the captives had been detained by around 30 rebel fighters, but Taseel said the men were "guests," not hostages, and were being held for their own safety.

However, he said they would only be released once Assad's forces retreated from around Jamla and halted bombing there.

"Negotiations should be between (the United Nations) and the regime of Bashar Assad to stop the bombing and lift the blockade of the area so it can be safe," Taseel said.

The Damascus government has not commented publicly about the incident.

Taseel said the UN observers had a responsibility to keep heavy weapons out of the area.

Under an agreement brokered by the United States in 1974, Israel and Syria are allowed a limited number of tanks and troops within 20 km (13 miles) of the disengagement line.

Taseel said the Syrian military had exceeded those limits and that its warplanes were bombing opposition targets within 500 meters (yards) of the disengagement line.

A UN report in December said both the Syrian army and rebels had been present in the de-militarized area between Syrian and Israeli forces, and that Syrian army operations had "affected adversely" UNDOF operations.

Referring to incidents including shelling from Syrian territory last year, it said: "Recent incidents across the ceasefire line have shown the potential for escalation of tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic, and jeopardize the ceasefire between the two countries."

The Israeli army told Reuters that eight UNDOF soldiers were "evacuated into Israel" from their lookout post on Friday, but gave no reason for the move. Army Radio reported the UNDOF soldiers escaped the fighting between rebel and Assad forces in the Jamla area.

The United Nations says around 70,000 people have been killed in Syria in the past two years. An uprising that began with mainly peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 has spiraled into an increasingly sectarian armed conflict.


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