Syria: Clashes erupt in area near Golan Heights where UN peacekeepers are being held hostage by rebels

 

Clashes between Syrian rebels and regime forces erupted today near a village where UN peacekeepers are being held hostage, an activist said, possibly complicating efforts to free them.

UN officials said arrangements are in place for the release of the UN peacekeepers, but that a rescue mission yesterday was aborted because of regime shelling in the area. Rescue efforts were to resume today, officials said.

The UN force has been monitoring an Israeli-Syrian ceasefire for four decades without incident, and their abduction added another destabilizing twist to Syria's civil war.

The Filipino peacekeepers, who were taken on Wednesday, are being held in the basements of several houses in the village of Jamlah, near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, UN officials said.

The peacekeepers were taken by a rebel group calling itself the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades. In the days leading up to the abduction, rebel fighters had overrun several Syrian military checkpoints in the area, and regime forces responded with shelling attacks.

Rebels initially said they would only release the hostages if Syrian forces withdraw from the area.

However, Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said the rebels apparently have dropped that demand.

Earlier today, Abdul-Rahman said a contact in the Jamlah area told him there was no shelling today. The Observatory later reported that a gunfight had erupted about two miles south of Jamlah, as rebels tried to seize an army checkpoint.

At the United Nations, peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous yesterday urged regime forces to refrain from retaliation against the village if the UN troops are freed.

"As of now, there is perhaps a hope — but I have to be extremely cautious because it is not done yet — but there is the possibility that a ceasefire of a few hours can intervene which would allow for our people to be released," he said after briefing the UN Security Council.

The rebels have posted several videos showing the hostages, apparently to show they are being treated well.

A video posted Friday and distributed by the US SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant forums, showed three UN peacekeepers wearing trademark blue UN vests over their camouflage uniforms as they sat on a low sofa. In the video, a bearded man with a two-way radio sits down between two of them, puts his arms around their shoulders and flashes a victory sign.

The Syria conflict broke out two years ago, starting with largely peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar Assad. A harsh regime crackdown triggered an armed insurgency that has turned into a full-scale civil war.

The UN estimates that the conflict has claimed more than 70,000 lives and forced nearly 4 million people from their homes. The fighting has devastated large areas of the country.

AP

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