x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Philippines urges Syrian rebels to release hostages

The capture of the Filipino peacekeepers, and clashes yesterday between Syrian troops and rebels near the border, was likely to increase Israeli concern about the repercussions of Syria's civil war.

The Philippines government yesterday condemned Syrian rebels who took 21 Filipino UN peacekeepers hostage near the Golan Heights.

Manila demanded the immediate release of its citizens, who were taken on Wednesday near the Israeli-held territory.

The capture of the peacekeepers, and clashes yesterday between Syrian troops and rebels near the border, was likely to increase Israeli concern about the civil war spilling over the frontier.

Neighbouring countries have long feared the violence could spill on to their soil.

The Iraqi government yesterday closed a border crossing with Syria and sent in military reinforcements after cross-border fire killed one of its soldiers.

The peacekeepers, among 300 from the Philippines who monitor the ceasefire agreed to by Syria and Israel in 1974, were part of a convoy that was stopped by rebel gunmen on Wednesday.

The rebels said the hostages would be held until Syrian regime forces pulled back from a Golan village.

Philippine president Benigno Aquino said he hoped the Filipinos would be released quickly.

"I understand they are being treated well. So far, nobody has been saying that they are in danger," he said.

Mr Aquino said UN peacekeeping leaders in the Golan were negotiating with the Syrian rebels and officials expected all 21 to be released.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said: "The mission has been in touch with the peacekeepers by telephone and confirmed they have not been harmed."

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Video footage posted online by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights yesterday shows some of Filipinos, with one of them saying they were safe and being cared for. The Philippines "strongly condemns the illegal detention of 21 Filipino peacekeepers under the United Nations command", said Albert del Rosario, the foreign secretary, who called their detention a gross breach of international law.

But a rebel spokesman said the troops would be held until forces loyal to the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, retreated from the village. He also accused the UN peacekeepers of favouring Israel.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted a spokesman for the "Martyrs of Yarmouk" rebel brigade as saying the peacekeepers were being held as guests in the village of Jamla, about a 1.5 kilometres from a ceasefire line with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. "He said they will not be harmed. But the rebels want the Syrian army and tanks to pull back from the area," the Observatory said after speaking to the rebel spokesman yesterday.

Philippine military spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos said the whereabouts of the hostages was not known.

"They were on a convoy composed of four vehicles and they passed a Syrian rebel post. They were initially stopped but later allowed to proceed after a round of negotiations," Col Burgos told reporters.

"But at a second post the Syrian rebels detained them. The rebels took the ignition keys of the vehicles."

"Their job is to patrol the area of separation, either by boat or mobile patrols at irregular intervals during the night-time. They also keep close contact with the host nations Syria and Israel," Col Burgos said.

"The contingent also ensures the safety of the local inhabitants in the area by guarding the minefield" separating the Syrian and Israeli forces.

The United Nations has reported a growing number of incidents in the Golan over the past year. It has sent extra armoured vehicles and communications equipment to reinforce security for the mission.

Up to the end of February there were about 1,000 troops from Austria, Croatia, India and the Philippines operating in the ceasefire force.

Last week, Croatia said it was withdrawing its 100 troops over fears for their safety, following similar moves by Japan in recent months. Canada pulled its troops out in March 2006.

Mr Aquino said no decision had been made on whether to pull the rest of the Filipino peacekeeping unit out of the Golan Heights.

On Iraq's border, the Yaarubiyeh crossing between eastern Syrian and the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh has been closed, said Mohammed Al Askari, a Iraqi defence spokesman. "Reinforcements were sent after ... battles near the border post" on Saturday, Mr Al Askari said, adding that the area was also under aerial surveillance. An Iraqi soldier was killed and three people including a soldier were wounded inside Iraqi territory on Saturday during clashes on the Syrian side of the border, he said. Two days later, 48 Syrian soldiers who crossed into north Iraq for medical treatment were killed in an ambush in Iraq's western Anbar province, as they were being returned to Syria.

Syrian state television yesterday broadcast pictures of "Israeli spy gear" unearthed in Syria, in what it said was proof of Israel's involvement in the armed revolt against Mr Al Assad's regime. The broadcaster showed footage of rocks used to "camouflage" surveillance cameras found on the Syrian coast, as well as recording and video devices to transmit pictures and audio "in real time" from "sensitive locations". "This is proof of Israel's role in events in Syria," an unidentified officer said in the broadcast. "Terrorists benefit from the information gathered thanks to this system, and at the same time the Zionist entity's own interests are served," the officer added.

Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Associated Press