REBELS holding 21 United Nations peacekeepers near the Golan Heights in southern Syria are demanding government forces stop their bombardment and leave the area before their “guests” can be freed.
“They will be passed to safe hands when possible – because the area is surrounded and the Assad regime is bombarding it,” said Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the Martyrs of Yarmouk rebel brigade which detained the Filipino peacekeepers.
Several videos were released of the peacekeepers yesterday in which they said they were being well-treated by civilians and rebels battling president Bashar al-Assad, but there was no indication of when they might leave.
“It’s not just a question of their safety only but the safety of the people in the area,” Taseel said, adding that the UN peacekeepers monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights had a responsibility to keep heavy weapons out of the area. The capture of the UN convoy just one mile from Israeli-held territory was another sign that Syria’s conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over to neighbouring countries.
Israel says it will not “stand idle” if violence spreads to the Golan Heights, which it captured in the 1967 Middle East War, although a senior defence ministry official voiced confidence yesterday that the UN could secure the peacekeepers’ release, signalling that Israel would not intervene.
Meanwhile, Syrian authorities said they had discovered Israeli spying devices that were apparently hidden in objects that resembled rocks. Syrian state news agency Sana said the devices were designed to photograph, register and transfer data. Israel is known to have used such equipment on its border with Lebanon in the past.
Wednesday’s detention of the peacekeepers by about 30 gunmen will reinforce Western concerns that weapons supplied to rebels fighting Mr Assad could end up being turned against Western interests.
Peter Bouckaert, of Human Rights Watch, said rebels fighting alongside the Martyrs of Yarmouk have been seen in other videos carrying a grenade launcher that appears to be Croatian. Reports last month quoted United States officials saying Saudi Arabia was sending Croatian arms to Syrian rebels.
The UN says about 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising, which erupted in March 2011 with mainly peaceful protests against Mr Assad and has spiralled into an increasingly sectarian conflict.
At least four videos on the internet yesterday showed groups of between three and six peacekeepers, saying they stopped in Jamla for their own safety during heavy bombardment – comments which contrasted with a UN statement which said they were detained by rebels.
The Philippine government condemned the capture of the peacekeepers – three officers and 18 enlisted men – which it called a “gross violation of international law”.
President Benigno Aquino said both sides in the Syrian conflict considered the UN to be a “benign presence” in the country – a view not shared by many Syrian rebels, who hold the organisation at least partly responsible for a lack of international support.
In a video announcing the capture of the UN convoy, a member of the Martyrs of Yarmouk accused the peacekeepers of collaborating with Mr Assad’s forces to push them out of the village of Jamla which the rebels seized on Sunday.
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 Mr Assad’s forces.