UN hopes for ceasefire to free kidnapped peacekeepers | News | DW | 08.03.2013
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UN hopes for ceasefire to free kidnapped peacekeepers

The United Nations hopes that a possible ceasefire will lead to the freeing of 21 UN observers that were taken hostage by Syrian rebels Wednesday. The peacekeepers are being held near the Golan Heights.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters after briefing the Security Council on Friday "there is perhaps a hope, ... a possibility" that a cease-fire of a few hours could take place so the peacekeepers, all Filipinos, can be released.

The 21 Filipino peacekeepers, members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), were kidnapped on Wednesday by about 30 armed fighters from the Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade near an observation tower in the demilitarized Golan Heights.

Activists said eight UN vehicles attempted to enter Syria's Golan village of Jamla on Friday to retrieve the peacekeepers, however heavy shelling by the Syrian army caused them to pull out. Jamla, where the hostages are being held, is just a kilometer (less than a mile) from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

"When the UN vehicles entered into Jamla, the Syrian army shelled a nearby village" and the vehicles then withdrew from the village, Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, a Britain-based activist group with links to the opposition.

Ladsous said the village had come under intense shelling from army forces, but Syria's ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari told reporters the army was targeting areas around Jamla where rebels were concentrated, but not the village itself.

"We know for sure what we are doing and we know where the peacekeepers are," he said. "The Syrian government forces are doing exactly what they have to do in order to bring back safely the peacekeepers."

Hostage crisis

The rebels originally said they would hold the hostages until troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad withdrew from the area of Jamla, which lies east of the ceasefire line.

Earlier, the kidnappers set the condition of procuring an International Committee of the Red Cross to escort the detainees out of Golan Heights in order to ensure "a safer ground." The kidnappers said the handover would only happen under the condition that the Red Cross escorts the detainees to a safe area.

The Filipino government confirmed the offer by Syrian rebels on Friday.

"The Syrian opposition forces are willing to release the peacekeepers," Philippines military spokesperson Colonel Arnulfo Burgos told reporters in Manila.

Soon after the attack Wednesday, the kidnappers released two videos, both of which were distributed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, claiming the capture.

The UN unit was tasked with monitoring a 1974 peace treaty between Israel and Syria. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 "Six-Day War." Syrian troops are not allowed to operate there under the treaty.

hc/dr (Reuters, AFP, AP)