Eight U.N. peacekeepers stationed on the Golan Heights crossed into Israel late Thursday night with the help of Israeli troops, seeking to escape the ongoing exchange of fire between Syrian regime forces and rebels near the Syrian village of Jamlah.
The Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson's Unit confirmed on Friday that the eight peacekeepers crossed into Israel, reportedly after receiving permission by their commanders to abandon their posts. The peacekeepers were met at the border gate by soldiers from the Golani infantry brigade, and after a short check were allowed to enter the country.
On Wednesday, 21 Filipino peacekeepers were abducted just a mile from the Israeli border in an area where the U.N. force has patrolled a cease-fire line without incident for nearly four decades. A rebel group known as the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades assumed responsibility for the kidnapping. As of Friday afternoon (Israel time) all 21 were still being held hostage.
The spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, Raul Hernandez, said on Friday that the rebels had been expected to free the peacekeepers early Friday but have instead stuck to their demands for repositioning of Syrian government forces before any handover.
"I don't know exactly what happened, why the expected release did not happen, but the demand is still there" for the Syrian forces to pull back, he told reporters in Manila.
He said that the Philippine government continues to "work with all stakeholders for the expeditious release of our Filipino U.N. peacekeepers."
It was reported earlier Friday that the Syrian rebels who seized the peacekeepers wanted the Red Cross to escort their hostages out of the area because of fighting with Syrian government forces, according to the Philippine military.
The abduction of the Filipino troops has also sent another worrisome signal to Israel about the lawlessness it fears along the shared border if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is ousted. Israel has said it's trying to keep out of the Syrian conflict, but is watching the disintegration of the country with growing concern.
Moshe Maoz, an Israeli expert on Syria, said the U.N. mission's success was largely due to the Assad's decision to abide by the truce.
"When you are dealing with an army that follows orders, it is one thing," Maoz said. "Now you have different groups. They do not recognize international law and have no respect for any law or international morals. They are terrorist groups that know no boundaries."
An Israeli official said that if the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force were to halt operations, it would be a "bad thing for peace." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the diplomatically sensitive issue with the media.
U.N. diplomats and officials said Thursday that the capture of the peacekeepers will almost certainly lead to a re-examination of security for the U.N. force and its patrols in the field.
Philippine military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos said earlier in the day that the rebels were willing to release the peacekeepers, and asked for the International Committee of the Red Cross to escort them to a safe area.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said negotiations were under way between the rebels, the Arab League and U.N. officials on handing over the peacekeepers. As part of the negotiations, the rebels were demanding that the regime withdraw from the area, end shelling attacks and allow refugees to return, the Observatory said.
According to Burgos, the rebels said the peacekeepers have to be removed because there was heavy fighting in the area.
He said the information came from the U.N. command on the Golan Heights, which was negotiating for the release of the peacekeepers.
"They want the ICRC to pick them up and escort them," Burgos said. "Hopefully they will really be released and we are also waiting for that."
The peacekeepers said in videos posted online that they were being treated well.
"To our family, we hope to see you soon and we are OK here," said a peacekeeper shown in one video. He was one of three troops dressed in camouflage and blue bulletproof vests emblazoned with the words U.N. and Philippines.
However, a rebel spokesman seemed to suggest the hostages were also serving as human shields. If the U.N. 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 U.N. and the Philippine government condemned the seizure of the peacekeepers and called on the rebels to immediately release them.
Rebels said 10 people have died in regime shelling of Jamlah and nearby villages in recent days. Fighting continued Thursday, according to activists.
A member of Syria's political opposition in exile, Khaled Saleh, said the rebels would deliver the U.N. troops to safety in Jordan as soon as the regime halts airstrikes in the area and a transfer is deemed safe.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the men's continued detention "absolutely unacceptable."
Meanwhile, Nuland said Assad's forces have bombarded opposition-held neighborhoods in the central city of Homs over the last 24 hours and cited reports that regime forces were amassed outside of the city "for what looks to be an all-out assault on rebel holdouts."
The U.N. monitoring mission, known as UNDOF, was set up in 1974.