UN officials hopeful Syrian rebels will soon release peacekeepers held in Golan Heights

 

McClatchy Newspapers

Syrian rebels have divided kidnapped U.N. peacekeepers into smaller groups and are keeping those groups in separate locations, a move that would make a rescue effort more difficult, according to a video released Thursday.

In the video, which was posted on the Internet, six of the peacekeepers, now believed to number 21, said that they were being kept in a “safe place” and that they had been separated from the other peacekeepers.

“They gave us good accommodation and gave us food to eat and water to drink,” an unidentified male hostage said of his captors, who seized the group Wednesday as it was patrolling a demilitarized zone separating Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights.

The kidnapping, by members of a rebel faction that calls itself the Martyrs of Yarmouk, was the first hostile act against U.N. troops in the 40 years since they were assigned to patrol a narrow no-man’s land that separates Syria from Israel.

The group was captured near the village of Jamlah. The rebels said they would be released only when the Syrian army agreed to withdraw from the Golan Heights area.

Israeli officials said they were monitoring the situation closely but would not intervene.

“Restricting the movement of troops in an international force is a significant event,” Amos Gilad, a senior Defense Ministry official, told Israel’s Army Radio.

Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day-War, and mortar fire from Syria’s civil war has occasionally spilled over into Israeli territory in the last year.

All of the kidnapped U.N. forces are Filipino.

Philippines Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said that the group was unharmed and being treated as “visitors and guests.” U.N. officials in the region were reportedly negotiating with various Syrian rebel groups in an effort to win the peacekeepers’ release. Representatives of the Arab League said that they also were involved in negotiations and that they hoped the group would be released within 24 hours.

A breakthrough might be in the offing. The group reportedly took down a Facebook post that had accused the U.N. of providing support to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and replaced it with one that said the peacekeepers were being held for their own protection and called on the U.N. to send a convoy to pick them up.

Israeli officials said the abductions increased their concern that the civil war in Syria was leading to that country’s “Balkanization” and would provide areas where radical Islamist groups could operate unchallenged by central government control.

The Martyrs of Yarmouk appears to be a small rebel faction that formed during the summer of 2012. On its Facebook page, it’s taken credit for a suicide bombing that it said took place last fall. It’s also posted video of pro-Assad fighters that it had captured.

“We do not have a clear sense of what a lot of these more hard-line rebels groups will decide to do vis a vis Israel,” a senior Israeli military official said Thursday. “At the moment they are busy trying to take down Assad. But in the future they could easily turn their attention to us, and we have to be on guard for that.” The official could not be further identified under the conditions of the briefing.

The official pointed to a video on the Martyrs of Yarmouk web page that taunts Assad for pretending to lead “the resistance” against Israel, while instead attacking his own people.

“We will be steadfast here until you move your tanks and armies to their military positions, Bashar,” one of the fighters said in the video. “This is Jamlah here and not Israel. Israel is 500 meters away. If you claim to be opposition and resistance, then shift the direction of your tanks a little. Israel is 500 meters away from you. And it’s not the Syrian people who are at that distance from you, Bashar, for you to face your tanks at them.”

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: sfrenkel@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @sheeraf

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