Eight Filipino United Nations observers abandoned their post on the Israel-Syria border on Friday and crossed into Israel to escape fighting between anti-regime rebels and the Syria army. The peacekeepers belonged to the same unit whose troops were abducted by rebel forces on Wednesday near the village of Jamla.
They crossed over near an Israeli army position and had first “coordinated their arrival” with the IDF, said a defense official. Israeli troops and UN personnel greeted them near one of the border gates. The Filipino peacekeepers will be transferred to a UN base inside Israel.
On Friday, the Philippine government said Syrian rebels had failed to release the 21 UN peacekeepers and stuck to their demands for the repositioning of Syrian government forces before any handover.
The 21 peacekeepers were seized Wednesday just a kilometer (less than a mile) from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, where the UN force has patrolled a cease-fire line between Israel and Syria for nearly four decades.
The spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, Raul Hernandez, said the rebels had been expected to free the peacekeepers early Friday.
“I don’t know exactly know what happened, why the expected release did not happen, but the demand is still there” for the Syrian forces to pull back, he told reporters in Manila.
He said that the Philippine government continues to “work with all stakeholders for the expeditious release of our Filipino UN peacekeepers.”
The rebels demand that Syrian troops pull back from the area around Jamla, the village near the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. UN peacekeepers have been monitoring the armistice line since 1974.
Last week, rebels from the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades, the group that is holding the peacekeepers, overran several Syrian army checkpoints in the area, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
However, there are still regime positions nearby because of the strategic importance of the area. Rebels apparently fear that the regime will push to retake the territory if the peacekeepers are released, raising the possibility of a prolonged standoff.
The peacekeepers said in videos posted online that they were being treated well.
“To our family, we hope to see you soon and we are OK here,” said a peacekeeper shown in one video. He was one of three troops dressed in camouflage and blue bullet-proof vests emblazoned with the words UN and Philippines.
However, a rebel spokesman seemed to suggest the hostages were also serving as human shields. If the UN troops are released and leave the area, the regime could kill “as many as 1,000 people,” said the spokesman, who spoke via Skype and did not give his name for fear of reprisals.
Israeli government sources on Thursday said Jerusalem was wary about the possibility of United Nations observer forces in the Golan Heights withdrawing their peacekeepers in the wake of the kidnapping.
Currently, there are about 1,150 UNDOF troops in the Golan, from Austria, India and the Philippines, and the soon-to-be-withdrawn Croatians. Since the 1974 establishment of the force, 43 troops and one civilian have died on duty.
Besides UNDOF, whose peacekeepers carry light weapons, there are also troops from the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) stationed on the Golan.
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