Syrian rebels: UN peacekeepers captured in Golan are our 'guests'

A hostage situation that began when Syrian rebels captured UN peacekeepers working in the Golan Heights yesterday seems to be rapidly deescalating as the captors scale back their threats.

Social Media Website via Reuters TV/REUTERS
A member of the Al Yarmouk Martyr brigade makes a statement in front of a white vehicle with 'UN' written on it at what said to be Jamla, Syria near the Golan Heights on March 6, 2013 in this still image taken from video posted on a social media website.

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Talks are underway to free 21 UN peacekeepers seized by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights yesterday, after the rebel group appeared to roll back its initial demands and instead declared the Filipino peacekeepers to be "guests" that they rescued.

The Philippine government said today that the troops, part of the UN's observer mission to Golan Heights to monitor the Syrian-Israeli border, were in good health and were being treated as "visitors and guests" by their captors, according to the Associated Press.

The peacekeepers' capture became public after a video was posted on the Facebook page of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, a relatively unknown group of Syrian rebels. Monitor reports that in the video, a fighter, standing in front of a UN-marked vehicle, demanded that "America and the UN Security Council" comply with the group's demands to ensure the peacekeepers' release.

"We demand from the US, the UN and the Security Council the complete withdrawal of the troops of Bashar al-Assad to release those captives… If no withdrawal is made within 24 hours we will treat them as prisoners," said a young man who identified himself as Abu Kayed al-Fahel, standing beside white-painted UN vehicles and speaking to the camera. He accused the UN troops of collaborating with Assad's forces to push the rebels out of Jamla.

But today The Washington Post reports that the video has been removed from the group's Facebook page, replaced with claims that the group rescued the UN peacekeepers from fighting in the area.

“With God’s help we managed to secure a group of UN members working in the border town of Jamleh after they were victims of the criminal shelling of Assad’s gangs,” the statement said. “We request from the United Nations to send us a security convoy so that we can deliver them to the organization.”

“We have nothing to do with any of the old statements before this one,” added the posting on the brigade’s Facebook page.

The peacekeepers are part of the UN mission that has patrolled a narrow zone separating Israeli and Syrian forces since 1974. The unarmed troops do not provide aid or other support to locals in the region, though Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog notes that they have on occasion provided medical treatment to both rebels and government soldiers.

Though the incident appears to now be headed towards a peaceful conclusion, it highlights the chaos that the Syrian conflict is causing among its neighbors. Earlier this week, some four-dozen Syrian army troops were killed by Islamist militants inside Iraq, where the soldiers had fled after fighting rebel forces. And the UN announced that the conflict had driven 1 million Syrians out of their country, primarily into Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon – the last of which is currently building a string of fortified watchtowers along its porous border with Syria. Lebanon has become a de facto extension of the Syrian battlefield, as rebels hiding in Lebanon frequently exchange fire with Assad loyalists on the other side.

The Israeli-Syrian border has been comparatively peaceful, though Agence France-Presse reports that the Israeli government expressed concern that the peacekeepers' capture may cause the UN to rethink its mission in the Golan Heights.

"This kidnapping is likely to convince countries who 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 said.

The top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily said Israeli officials feared that "Al-Qaeda members will take control of the buffer zone."

But the Israeli government added today that it would not get involved in the hostage situation, and that "The United Nations ... can be trusted to persuade them [the rebels] ultimately to free them," according to Amos Gilad, a senior Defense Ministry official.

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