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BEIRUT: Rebels holding 21 UN peacekeepers near the Golan Heights in southern Syria say government forces must leave the area before they free their “guests”, an activist in touch with the fighters said yesterday.
Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted a spokesman for the “Martyrs of Yarmouk” rebel brigade as saying the peacekeepers were being held as “guests” in the village of Jamla, about 1.6km from a ceasefire line with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
“He said they will not be harmed. But the rebels want the Syrian army and tanks to pull back from the area,” Abdelrahman said after speaking to the rebel spokesman yesterday morning.
The capture of the UN peacekeepers close to Israeli-held territory was another sign that Syria’s conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over to neighbouring countries.
Israel has said it will not “stand idle” if violence spreads to the Golan, which it captured in the 1967 Middle East war. But a senior Defence Ministry official voiced confidence yesterday that the United Nations could secure the peacekeepers’ release, signalling that Israel would not intervene.
Suspected Sunni Muslim insurgents killed 48 Syrian troops inside Iraq on Monday and cross-border artillery fired from Syria has killed people in Lebanon and Turkey in recent months.
Wednesday’s detention of the peacekeepers by around 30 gunmen will also reinforce Western concerns that any weapons supplied to rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Al Assad could end up being turned against Western interests.
Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch said rebels from the Martyrs of Yarmouk have been seen in other videos carrying a grenade launcher that appears to be Croatian. Media reports last month quoted US officials saying Saudi Arabia was sending Croatian arms to Syrian rebels.
The United Nations says around 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising which erupted in March 2011 with mainly peaceful protests against Assad and has spiralled into an increasingly sectarian conflict.
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 village 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.
That statement appeared at odds not only with the original rebel statement but with the footage showing the convoy halted in the middle of a road, with UN personnel stuck inside their vehicles, exposed to any artillery shells that might fall.
Human Rights Watch said it was investigating the Yarmouk Martyrs for involvement in past executions, including a videotaped killing of Syrian soldiers which was posted on the Internet
on Tuesday. REUTERS