A Philippine government official on Thursday said the 21 Filipino UN peacekeepers who were detained by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights on Wednesday were unharmed and were being treated as “visitors and guests.”
Raul Hernandez, the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department spokesman, told reporters in Manila that the UN force commander in the area was negotiating with the leader of the rebel group for the release of the peacekeepers.
The country’s president, Benigno Aquino III, said earlier that he was told to expect the peacekeepers to be released within 24 hours, with negotiations progressing. Hernandez said the rebel group’s demands concerned the positioning of Syrian government forces in the area, and that there was no deadline for the negotiations.
The peacekeepers were kidnapped Wednesday by a group of Syrian rebels near the Golan Heights town of Jamla.
“They were in a military convoy doing their run. They were suddenly held at one Syrian rebel outpost. They were allowed to go through the first outpost but were stopped at the second outpost,” said Philippine military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos.
A video clip released by the rebels shows a number of gunmen standing alongside the UN vehicles, while their apparent leader announced his demands. Some of the United Nations employees can be seen inside the vehicles.
In a second video, the same rebel spokesman is seen accusing the UN, the Assad regime and Europe of “collaborating with Israel.”
“The Free Syrian army will remain here until we banish Bashar and his oppression,” one rebel is seen saying.
The video accuses the peacekeepers of assisting the Syrian regime to redeploy in an area near the Golan that the fighters seized a few days ago in battles that left 11 fighters and 19 regime forces dead.
A man identified as Abu Qaed al-Faleh, spokesman for the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, announced the group is holding the peacekeepers until Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces withdraw from Jamla.
The UN Security Council strongly condemned the kidnapping and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the peacekeepers.
Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the council president, told reporters that armed groups had been threatening the unarmed peacekeepers. He said talks were under way between UN officials and the captors.
Churkin said the capture of the peacekeepers “is particularly unacceptable and bizarre (because) UNDOF are unarmed and they have nothing to do with the situation in Syria.”
“They are there on a completely different mission so there is no reason at all under any circumstances, any kind of sick imagination to try to harm those people,” he said.
Churkin urged countries with influence on the Syrian opposition to use it to help free the peacekeepers. He did not name any countries but Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are known to have been providing military aid to some Syrian rebel groups.
UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said the UN observers were on a regular supply mission when they were stopped near an observation post and detained by some 30 gunmen.
Croatia announced last week that it would withdraw some 100 peacekeeping troops from the Syria-Israel border due to fears in the Croatian government that its troops could become targets for Syrian government soldiers.
Last month, UN staffer Carl Campeau went missing in the Syrian Golan Heights, sources familiar with the case told The Times of Israel.
Campeau, a Canadian legal adviser, was stationed at the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force base on the Syrian side of the demilitarized zone. Attempts by The Times of Israel to contact Campeau on his cellphone and at his office were unsuccessful.
Last week, The Times of Israel quoted a rebel activist reporting that Assad’s army had fled the Golan Heights area bordering Israel, and that rebel forces were in control there.