The Philippine government said Thursday that talks were under way for the release of 21 unarmed Filipino UN peacekeepers who were detained by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights in the increasingly volatile zone separating Israeli and Syrian troops.
Foreign Affairs Department spokesman Raul Hernandez said the peacekeepers, who were detained on Wednesday, were unharmed and were being treated as "visitors and guests."
Hernandez told reporters in Manila that the UN force commander in the area was negotiating with the leader of the rebel group, whose demands concerned the positioning of Syrian government forces in the area. He said there was no deadline for the negotiations.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said earlier Thursday that the UN force commander told him to expect the peacekeepers to be released within 24 hours, with negotiations progressing well. The UN Security Council demanded their immediate and unconditional release.
The capture came a week after the announcement that a member of the peacekeeping force is missing. The force, known as UNDOF, was established a year after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. It monitors the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces and maintains a cease-fire.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, and Syria wants the land returned in exchange for peace. Israeli officials have grown increasingly jittery as the Syrian war moves closer to Israel. There have been several instances in which stray fire has landed in the Golan Heights, and Israel is concerned that Syrian weapons could fall into the hands of hostile groups and be used against Israel.
The 21 peacekeepers, including three officers and the rest enlisted personnel, were in a four-vehicle convoy when they were intercepted by Syrian rebels around noon Wednesday, said Philippine military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos.
Burgos said the soldiers were initially blocked by Syrian rebels at a first checkpoint. "After a round of negotiation, they were allowed to leave and proceed to their destination," he said. "On the second checkpoint, they were again intercepted and were not released."
He said the Syrian rebels took the keys of the soldiers' vehicles and brought the peacekeepers to an undisclosed area. Burgos said the soldiers were unarmed at that time but were wearing armored vests and other protective gear. "They were unarmed because they were on a logistics run, they are not on patrol. ... They were bringing supplies," he said.
They are part of a Philippine contingent of 300 peacekeepers. A video posted online by activists showed a group of armed rebels standing around at least three white UN vehicles with the words UNDOF on them, allegedly in the village of Jamlah in Daraa province.
The video, circulated by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, accuses the peacekeepers of assisting the Syrian regime to redeploy in an area near the Golan Heights that the fighters had seized a few days ago in battles that left 11 fighters and 19 regime forces dead.
A man identified as Abu Qaed al-Faleh, spokesman for the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, announced that the group would hold the peacekeepers until Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces withdraw from Jamlah.
"They will not be released until after Bashar Assad's forces withdraw from the village of Jamlah bordering Israel," the man said. Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the current Security Council president, said the capture of the peacekeepers "is particularly unacceptable and bizarre" because the UNDOF peacekeepers are unarmed and their mission has nothing to do with Syria's internal conflict.
"They are there on a completely different mission, so there is no reason at all under any circumstances, any kind of sick imagination, to try to harm those people," he said.
Churkin urged countries with influence on the Syrian opposition to use it to help free the peacekeepers. He did not name any countries, but Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are known to have been providing military aid to some Syrian rebel groups.
The international community has been divided in its response to Syria's conflict.
The United States and other countries have supported Syria's political opposition but have been reluctant to send weapons partly because of fears they may fall into the hands of extremists who have been gaining influence among the rebels. The Obama administration, however, announced last week that it would, for the first time, provide non-lethal aid directly to the rebels.
Russia and China, meanwhile, have continued to back Assad's regime. Human Right Watch, meanwhile, is investigating whether the same rebels linked to seizing the peacekeepers were involved in the executions of captured regime soldiers in another incident around Jamlah several days ago. The rights group began the investigation after receiving one video apparently showing the capture of the Syrian soldiers and a second video showing bodies in the same area, Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch said.
"We were just starting to investigate this today ... when we learned about the incident with the UN peacekeepers," he said. Asked about why the rebels might be holding the UN peacekeepers, he said: "This seems to be a rather inexperienced group. It shows the desperation that many people, including armed groups, around Syria feel about protecting the civilians in their own villages."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned of escalating military activity along the Israeli-Syrian border as a result of the intensifying Syrian conflict, which began in 2011 and has cost more than 70,000 lives.
In December, Ban accused the Syrian government of serious violations of the 1974 separation agreement and called on both countries to halt firing across the cease-fire line. He cited numerous clashes between Syrian security forces and opposition fighters in the disengagement zone.
In response, he said, UNDOF has adopted a number of security measures.
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