Four Filipino peacekeepers belonging to UNDOF were kidnapped in southern Syria on Tuesday. According to initial reports, the men were taken hostage near the Syrian town of Jamla, just one kilometer from the border with Israel.
In New York, Kieran Dwyer, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping department, confirmed the abduction and said the four peacekeepers, all from the Philippines, were taken on Tuesday by an unidentified armed group near the town of Jamla in southern Syria.
“Efforts are underway to secure their release now,” Dwyer said.
In Manila, Philippine military spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan said that he had seen photos of the Filipino peacekeepers posted on the Internet and it appeared that none had been hurt.
He said that his government was in contact with the UN mission and the Philippine contigent of the UN Peacekeeping Forces in Syria for updates and developments “and possible additional actions from our end subject to the terms of deployment.” He did not elaborate.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, in a statement, condemned the peacekeepers’ abduction and called for their immediate and safe release, urging the UN Security Council to take action to secure their freedom.
“The Philippines underscores that the apprehension and illegal detention of peacekeepers are gross violations of international law,” the statement said.
Earlier this year, Syrian rebels operating near the Israel-Syria border captured a convoy of United Nations vehicles and held 21 Filipino UN employees. The men were eventually released, following pressure from the UN Security Council and secretary general.
The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, the same group responsible for the March abductions, said in a statement on its Facebook page that it was “securing the UN people working in Wadi Yarmouk” following bombing by the Syrian army that endangered the peacekeepers.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson said that the UN “strongly condemns the detention of four UNDOF peacekeepers by armed elements in the vicinity of Al Jamla… and calls for their immediate release.”
“The Secretary-General reminds all actors in Syria that UNDOF is mandated to monitor the Disengagement of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria. The Secretary-General calls on all parties to respect UNDOF’s freedom of movement and safety and security,” the spokesperson said.
Syrian opposition groups reported intense clashes between Syrian rebels and President Bashar Assad’s forces near the border with Israel simultaneous to the reports of the peacekeepers being grabbed.
According to a Syrian Observatory for Human Rights report, Syrian Army forces bombarded the towns of Ghadir al-Bustan, Qarqas and al-Hiran, less than two miles from the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, and rebel forces stormed the town of Kodna, also situated on the border. Eighteen rebel fighters died in clashes with government forces in the area on Tuesday, it said.
According to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, Free Syrian Army forces stormed the town of Rafeed — located in the demilitarized zone separating Israel and Syria — “liberated” a number of Syrian Army battalions, killed “all the regime forces located there” and captured weapons and munitions. Five rebel fighters were killed in the clashes, it said.
UNDOF was set up in 1974 as a peacekeeping observer force along the Israel-Syria ceasefire line established after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The force is currently composed of nearly 1,000 Filipino, Austrian, Indian, Moroccan, and Moldovan troops.
Earlier this year, Croatia pulled its contingent from UNDOF, saying its safety was compromised after reports emerged that Zagreb shipped arms to the Syrian rebels.