Syria rebels near the village of Jamla on the Golan Heights captured a convoy of United Nations vehicles and kidnapped 21 Filipino UN employees Wednesday.
The kidnappers were negotiating with UN forces and demanding that the Syrian regime remove all its troops from the area adjoining the Syrian side of the border with Israel.
The UN Security Council demanded their immediate and unconditional release.
In Manila, Philippine military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos said that Syrian rebels were holding 21 Filipino peacekeepers “as guests.”
“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,” Burgos said.
“I don’t have the details yet on the demands. It seems they are asking about the placement of military hardware… for a reduction of Syrian forces,” he said.
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.
The kidnapping exemplifies the escalation in the activity of the increasingly emboldened rebel forces in the area.
On Tuesday, footage aired by Israel’s Channel 10 revealed that al-Qaeda operatives fighting the Syrian regime have been watching and studying IDF patrols along the border, only meters away on the other side of the fence.
In a number of videos uploaded to the Internet, the fighters can also be seen holding various munitions, including old antitank rockets and heavy machine guns.
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.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned of escalating military activity along the Israeli-Syrian border as a result of the intensifying Syrian conflict, which has gone on for two years and cost more than 70,000 lives.
In December, Ban accused the Syrian government of serious violations of the 1974 separation agreement and called on both countries to halt firing across the cease-fire line. He also cited numerous clashes between Syrian security forces and opposition fighters in the disengagement zone.
In response, he said, UNDOF has adopted a number of security measures.
The Israel Defense Forces declined to comment.
Israeli officials have grown increasingly jittery as the Syrian war moves closer to Israel. There have been several instances in which stray fire has landed in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, and Israel is concerned that Syrian weapons could fall into the hands of hostile groups and be used against Israel.
Human Right Watch, meanwhile, is investigating whether the same rebels linked to seizing the peacekeepers were involved in the executions of captured regime soldiers in another incident around Jamlah several days ago. The rights group began the investigation after receiving one video apparently showing the capture of the Syrian soldiers and a second video showing bodies in the same area, Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch said.
“We were just starting to investigate this today … when we learned about the incident with the UN peacekeepers,” he said.
Asked about why the rebels might be holding the UN peacekeepers, he said: “This seems to be a rather inexperienced group. It shows the desperation that many people, including armed groups, around Syria feel about protecting the civilians in their own villages.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.