UN peacekeepers hostage crisis: Syrian rebels, regime forces clash



Beirut: Clashes between Syrian rebels and regime forces erupted on Saturday 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 destabilising 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 three kilometers 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.

PTI