Syrian rebels said on Tuesday they were holding four Filipino UN peacekeepers on the ceasefire line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights after clashes in the area had put them in danger.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the detention and called for the peacekeepers’ immediate release. They were detained as they patrolled close to an area where 21 Filipino observers were held for three days in March.
The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade made the announcement on its Facebook page, in a statement accompanied by a picture of four peacekeepers wearing light-blue UN flak jackets marked “Philippines.”
The same group was responsible for the March kidnappings and initial reports described it as hostage-taking, which the rebel unit denied.
“The brigade does not want this issue blown out of proportion like the last incident,” said Abu Iyas al-Hourani, a rebel from the group who spoke to Reuters on Skype.
“They (the peacekeepers) are safe and sound and will be handed over as soon as possible. But as happened last time, they were in an area where very heavy clashes took place in the Ghadeer al-Bustan area.”
During the March kidnappings, a rebel leader said their “guests” would be returned only after government forces retreat from the area.
UN spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero said the peacekeepers were taken at Position 86, near the southern end of the narrow “area of separation” between Syrian and Israeli forces.
Ban “strongly condemns the detention of four [United Nations Disengagement Observer Force] peacekeepers by armed elements” and “calls for their immediate release,” said the UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.
“The secretary general calls on all parties to respect UNDOF’s freedom of movement and safety and security,” he added.
UNDOF, which has been in the Golan Heights since 1974, has about 1,000 troops and civilian staff.
The 917 troops from Austria, India, the Philippines, Morocco and Moldova carry only very light arms.
The United Nations sent extra armored personnel carriers, ambulances and other security equipment to the force after the March 6 – 9 abduction.