Eight UN peacekeepers abandon posts near Syria, retreat to Israeli territory
Filipino soldiers leave demilitarized zone in accordance with UNDOF command, as Syrian rebels refuse to release 21 kidnapped peacekeepers.
Eight peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Force abandoned their posts near southern Syria on Friday, and traveled to the Israel-Syria border.
After leaving their posts in the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria, the soldiers were brought into Israel by the Israel Defense Forces, acting in coordination with UNDOF command. The soldiers are currently at an UNDOF post near Quneitra, in Israeli territory.
In light of continued fighting between Syrian forces and rebels in the village of Jamala, the UN peacekeepers feared for their lives, and decided to "retreat" into Israeli territory.
The soldiers that made their way to Israel serve in the same battalion as a group of soldiers from the Philippines who were kidnapped by Syrian rebels earlier this week.
The 21 Filipino peacekeepers were seized Wednesday near the Syrian village of Jamlah, just a kilometer (less than a mile) from the Golan Heights, where the UN force has patrolled a cease-fire line between Israel and Syria for nearly four decades.
The rebels said Thursday that the kidnapping was a mistake, and that the rebel group is working toward releasing them. Brigadier General Hussam al-Din Awak of the Free Syria Army also told BBC the rebels would not harm the abducted UN soldiers.
However, on Friday, the Philippine government said the rebels failed to release the peacekeepers and stuck to their demands for repositioning of Syrian government forces before any handover.
The rebels demand that Syrian troops pull back from the area around Jamlah, the village near the Golan Heights that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. UN peacekeepers have been monitoring the armistice line since 1974.
A rebel spokesman seemed to suggest the hostages were serving as human shields. If the UN troops are released and leave the area, the regime could kill "as many as 1,000 people," said the spokesman, who spoke via Skype and did not give his name for fear of reprisals.
The peacekeepers said in videos posted online that they were being treated well.
This is the first kidnapping incident since UNDOF began its operations in the Golan Heights, roughly 2 months after the ceasefire agreement signed by Israel and Syria in 1974. Today, the force is comprised of 1,011 soldiers from Austria, Croatia, India, and the Philippines.