Syrian rebels captured 21 U.N. peacekeepers on Wednesday in a bid to force President Bashar al-Assad to withdraw from a rebel-held village near the Golan Heights. The UN observers were in the area to supervise a 1974 ceasefire agreement between Syria and Israel.
In the video that follows, a man claiming to be a spokesman for the “Martyrs of Yarmouk” Brigade said that his men will hold the peacekeepers until Assad’s forces withdraw from Jamlah.
Although the rebels claimed no harm would come to the UN employees, a message on the Yarmouk Brigades’ Facebook page hinted that Assad would bear responsibility for any harm to them. He also indicated that if Assad did not withdraw his forces from the village within 24 hours, the observers would be treated as prisoners.
The incident marked a worsening of the conflict in the Golan region, where occasional mortar and artillery bombardments have stoked Israeli fears about a possible spillover of the conflict — even inspiring plans to build a fence along its border with Syria. Fighting between government and rebel forces near where the peacekeepers were abducted continued on Thursday, with little sign of abating.
Meanwhile, the United Nations began negotiations with rebel fighters Thursday in a bid to secure the peacekeepers’ release. “The negotiations are ongoing,” a spokesman for Philippines Foreign Ministry told reporters Thursday at a press conference. “This is between the U.N. peacekeeping force and the group leader of this rebel force. We have been informed that they are unharmed and for the time being they are being treated as visitors and guests.”
Reuters disclosed in August of last year that the Obama administration had been secretly providing aid to the Syrian rebels. Russia has condemned this act, and the rebels have recently complained that they want armaments from the United States, not Band-Aids.
The following translation has been provided by Reuters:
“The command of the Martyrs of Yarmouk announced that it is holding forces of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force until the withdrawal of forces of the regime of (President) Bashar al-Assad from the outskirts of the village of Jamla,” said the rebel spokesman. ”If no withdrawal is made within 24 hours we will treat them as prisoners.”
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