21 U.N. peacekeepers taken captive by armed Syrian rebels in Syrian Golan Heights • International negotiations underway for their release • Philippine ambassador: Israel mustn't intervene in hostage crisis.
Daniel Siryoti and Yoni Hirsh
The spokesman for the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, which claims to have taken 21 U.N. peacekeepers hostage.
Photo credit: AFP
The incident took place less than 2 miles from the Israeli border.
Photo credit: Google Maps
Israel has expressed concern that the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights may pull out altogether after Syrian rebels snatched 21 U.N. troops in the cease-fire zone bordering Israel, the French news agency AFP reported on Thursday.
An international negotiating team has been sent to Syria on behalf of the U.N. to secure the release of the 21 peacekeepers taken captive on Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Spokesman Farhan Haq told Army Radio on Thursday. "We certainly hope it will be resolved, and the secretary-general and the Security Council are united in calling for the immediate release of the prisoners."
Haq said he did not know how long it would take to free the prisoners.
"This kidnapping is likely to convince countries which participate in this force to bring their troops home, which would undoubtedly create a dangerous vacuum in no man's land on the Golan," an Israeli official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Since its creation, this force has fulfilled its mission which was to keep the peace."
Israel fears that the departure of the U.N. troops may leave the cease-fire zone between the Syrian and the Israeli sectors of the Golan Heights open to infiltration by hardline militant groups, AFP reported.
The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force has been monitoring the cease-fire between Syria and Israel since 1974. The 21 peacekeepers who were taken captive — three officers and the rest enlisted personnel — were in a four-vehicle convoy when they were intercepted by Syrian rebels around noon on Wednesday near Jamlah, in the Daara province, less than 2 miles from the Israel-Syria cease-fire line, said Philippine military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos. Most of the peacekeepers were unarmed. They were part of a group of 300 from the 6th Philippine Contingent, led by Lt. Col. Nolie L. Anquillano, which is involved in peacekeeping efforts in the Golan Heights.
Israel's Army Radio reported that the IDF had no comment on the event, as while it occurred close to the Israeli border, it was still part of the internal conflict raging in Syria. Philippine Ambassador to Israel Generoso D.G. Calonge told Israel Radio on Thursday that his country expected Israel not to intervene in the crisis and that Israeli intervention would not be helpful.
"They [the troops] are under U.N. command and serving the U.N.," Calonge said. "We should leave it to the U.N. and I believe the U.N. will take care of them. The government of the Philippines prefers to leave it to the U.N. I would like Israel to give me information on what they know, but any active role would not expected as Syria and Israel are on opposite sides."
VIDEO: Gunmen from the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades with the captured U.N. vehicles
Currently, UNDOF comprises observers from Austria, Japan, Scandinavian countries, the Philippines and Croatia.
Members of the Syrian opposition released a video in which armed rebels calling themselves the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, showed off the captured U.N. vehicles and the captives inside, wearing bullet proof vests and the blue U.N. helmets.
"We demand a full retreat of all of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad's forces from Jamlah and the Daraa province," the rebel spokesman said in the video. "The Syrian military has been bombing the village relentlessly and those that are helping them are the U.N."
The spokesman pointed to one of the U.N. observers, who was standing next to him and speaking on a cell phone, and said: "The firing you hear in the background is the Syrian army shelling our village. These are the U.N.'s people, who are helping Assad take over our village. On Saturday we succeeded in overtaking a Syrian artillery piece and stopping some of the bombardment, but the regime, with the aid of the U.N., Europe and Israel bombarded the village from the air."
A man identified as Abu Qaed al-Faleh, spokesman for the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, announced that the group would hold the peacekeepers until Assad's forces withdrew from Jamlah, reported The Associated Press. "They will not be released until after Bashar Assad's forces withdraw from the village of Jamlah bordering Israel," the man said.
The spokesman issued an ultimatum, saying, "If in 24 hours our demands are not met, we will take the U.N. observers as prisoners and treat them like prisoners of war." The rebels also published a different video in which they threatened that if the Syrian air force continued its attacks in the Daraa province, they would use the U.N. peacekeepers as human shields.
Several weeks ago, a senior adviser to the commander of the U.N. forces in the region was abducted in the Syrian Golan Heights. His whereabouts and the identities of his captors are still unknown.
The past few weeks have seen pitched battles fought between Syrian rebels, reinforced by elements of the al-Qaida aligned Jabhat al-Nusra group, and two Syrian army divisions stationed in the region. Video footage showed al-Qaida fighters taking positions near the Israel-Syria border in the Golan Heights.
The U.N. Security Council demanded "the unconditional release" of the peacekeepers. "We call on all sides to cooperate with U.N. forces and allow them to operate freely and protect the safety of the observers," a U.N. statement read.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's spokesman released a statement on Thursday. "The secretary-general reminds all actors in Syria that UNDOF is mandated to monitor the Disengagement of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria. UNDOF’s freedom of movement and safety and security must be respected by all parties," the statement said.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the current Security Council president, said the capture of the peacekeepers "is particularly unacceptable and bizarre" because the UNDOF peacekeepers were unarmed and their mission had 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.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch 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, Human Rights Watch member Peter Bouckaert said.
"We were just starting to investigate this today ... when we learned about the incident with the U.N. peacekeepers," he said.
Asked about why the rebels might be holding the U.N. 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."
Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition moved one step closer to being recognized as the representative of the Syrian people. The Arab League offered the opposition a seat, on condition that it created a representative council. Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said that Arab foreign ministers had invited the "national Syrian coalition" to elect a representative to attend the league's summer meeting in Qatar. Iraq and Algeria expressed their reservations on the proposition while Lebanon abstained. The Arab League ruled that all member countries would be able to provide the Syrian opposition with military aid if they chose to do so.
Meanwhile, Syrian state-run TV reported Thursday night that "authorities discovered Israeli espionage equipment on the Syrian coast." According to the report, the equipment was found near Latakia and was capable of capturing audio and video and broadcasting the information.