Rebels: Hostages to be freed when Assad troops leave

UN conducting negotiations for release of peacekeepers; rebel activist says hostages will be passed to safe hands when possible.

UN peacekeepers blue helmets (photo credit: Ali Hashisho / Reuters)
UN peacekeepers blue helmets
(photo credit: Ali Hashisho / Reuters)
Rebels holding 21 Filipino UN peacekeepers near the Golan Heights in southern Syria said on Thursday that government forces must stop their bombardment and leave the area before their “guests” can be freed, a rebel activist said.
“They will be passed to safe hands when possible – because the area is surrounded and the Assad regime is bombarding it,” said Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the Martyrs of Yarmouk rebel brigade that detained the peacekeepers.
Several videos of the peacekeepers were released on Thursday in which they said they were being well-treated by civilians and rebels battling President Bashar Assad, but 24 hours after their capture in the southern village of Jamla there was no indication when they might leave.
“It’s not just a question of their safety only, but the safety of the people in the area,” Taseel said, adding that the UN peacekeepers monitoring the cease-fire line between Syria and Israel had the responsibility of keeping heavy weapons out of the area.
The capture of the UN convoy just 1.5 kilometers from the Israeli border was another sign that Syria’s conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over to neighboring countries.
The Philippines made clear it did not expect any concrete action by Israel to help free the hostages, in order to avoid pulling Israel into Syria’s conflict, Philippine Ambassador to Israel Generoso Calonge said on Thursday.
“I don’t believe Israel should do anything, except share with us information that it might learn,” Calonge told The Jerusalem Post. “I don’t expect them to do anything, actively or proactively. I would not want Israel dragged in.”
The ambassador said the UN was conducting negotiations for the release of the peacekeepers.
They are part of a 333-strong Filipino contingent to the UN Disengagement Force.
India, Austria and Croatia are the other countries that provide the 1,000-strong force.
As of two weeks ago, Manila was set on keeping its forces in the area, but had readied a contingency plan for their immediate withdrawal, Calogne said.
“I don’t know if this will change the dynamics,” he said.
Calogne said he had heard throughout the day from both government officials and private Israeli citizens expressing their support and concern.
Meanwhile, Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry’s diplomatic- security bureau, told Israel Radio that the UN could be “trusted to persuade” the rebels to free the hostages. The rebels were not keen on “getting into a confrontation with the international community,” he said.
The United Nations says around 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising that erupted in March 2011.
At least four videos uploaded to the Internet on Thursday showed groups of between three and six peacekeepers, saying they stopped in Jamla for their own safety during heavy bombardment – comments that contrasted with a statement from the UN that said they were detained by 30 armed rebels.
The Philippine government condemned the capture of the peacekeepers – three officers and 18 enlisted men – which it called a “gross violation of international law.”
In a video released to announce the capture of the UN 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 Jamla, which the rebels seized on Sunday after heavy fighting.
A Facebook statement issued later in the name of the Yarmouk Martyrs denied the UN soldiers had been detained and said they were being protected from bombardment by Assad’s forces.