The Philippines on Friday said rebels who are holding 21 Filipino peacekeepers hostage in the Golan Heights were insisting Syrian government troops leave the area before releasing their captives.
The refusal by the Syrian rebels to compromise has dampened hopes of the UN peacekeepers being released quickly, and forced the government to step up its negotiation efforts, said Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez, the Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson.
A rebel spokesperson 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 spokesperson, who spoke via Skype and did not give his name for fear of reprisals.
The European Union (EU) has called for the unconditional release of 21 Filipino peacekeepers held by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights, condemning the act as a “serious breach of international law.”
The Philippine government had previously received information that raised hopes the 21 would be released on Friday morning, Philippine time, and the government now did not know if or when they would be freed, Hernandez said.
President Aquino told reporters on Thursday the United Nations was expecting the 21 to be released by Friday, or as early as Thursday.
“I don’t exactly know what happened, why the expected release did not happen, but the demand is still there” for the Syrian forces to pull back, so this is still being worked out, Hernandez told reporters on Friday.
The rebels want the Syrian troops to move 20 kilometers back from Jamlah, an area in the Golan’s ceasefire zone, before they free the Filipinos, he said, adding he did not know of any other conditions.
‘Treated as guests’
However, he said the Filipino peacekeepers were still being treated well, “[they are] being treated as guests and are unharmed.”
The 21 Filipino troops, members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) patrolling a 1974 ceasefire line between Syria and Israel, were abducted on Wednesday near the Syrian village of Jamlah, just a kilometer (less than a mile) from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
The Philippine government condemned the capture of the peacekeepers—three officers and 18 enlisted men—which it called a “gross violation of international law.”
Armed Forces spokesperson Col. Arnulfo Burgos said the rebels were willing to release the peacekeepers, and asked for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to escort them to a safe area.
He said the information came from the UN command in the Golan Heights, which was negotiating for the release of the peacekeepers.
A UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, previously said the Undof mission was “negotiating with the armed group and the Syrian authorities” to obtain a release.
“They want the ICRC to pick them up and escort them,” Burgos said. “Hopefully they will really be released, and we are also waiting for that.”
In Beirut, rebels holding the 21 Filipino peacekeepers said government forces must stop their bombardment and leave the area before their “guests” can be freed.
“They will be passed to safe hands when possible because the area is surrounded and the Assad regime is bombarding it,” said Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the Martyrs of Yarmouk.
“It’s not just a question of their safety only but the safety of the people in the area,” Taseel said, adding that the UN peacekeepers had a responsibility to keep heavy weapons out of the area.
The detention of the peacekeepers by around 30 gunmen will reinforce Western concerns that any weapons supplied to rebels fighting to overthrow Assad could end up being turned against Western interests.
Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch said rebels fighting alongside the Martyrs of Yarmouk had been seen in other videos carrying a grenade launcher that appeared to be Croatian. Media reports last month quoted US officials saying Saudi Arabia was sending Croatian arms to Syrian rebels.
The United Nations says around 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising which erupted in March 2011 with mainly peaceful protests against Assad and has spiraled into an increasingly sectarian conflict.
At least four videos downloaded on the Internet on Thursday showed groups of between three and six of the captured peacekeepers, saying they stopped in Jamlah for their own safety during heavy bombardment—comments which contrasted with a statement from the United Nations which said they were detained by 30 armed rebels.
Involved in executions
Human Rights Watch said it was investigating the Yarmouk Martyrs for involvement in past executions, including a videotaped killing of Syrian soldiers which was posted on the Internet on Tuesday.
One video showed rebels with several men in army fatigues they said were captured at a Syrian army base near Jamlah.
Another video showed 10 dead men, including some of the captives filmed alive in the earlier video.
The UN Security Council and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the seizure of the observers and demanded their immediate release.
“The UN observers were on a regular supply mission and were stopped near Observation Post 58, which had sustained damage and was evacuated this past weekend following heavy combat in close proximity at Al Jamlah,” the United Nations said, referring to a village which saw fierce clashes on Sunday.
It said the peacekeepers were taken by around 30 fighters.
In one rebel video, a young man saying he was from the Martyrs of Yarmouk brigade stood surrounded by several rebel fighters with assault rifles in front of two white armored vehicles and a truck with “UN” markings.
“The command of the Martyrs of Yarmouk … is holding forces of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force until the withdrawal of forces of the regime of Bashar al-Assad from the outskirts of the village of Jamlah,” he said.
At least five people could be seen sitting in the vehicles wearing light blue UN helmets and bulletproof vests. “If no withdrawal is made within 24 hours we will treat them as prisoners,” the man said.
In a statement issued in Brussels through her spokesperson, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said the bloc was “alarmed” about the illegal detention of Filipino peacekeepers in the ceasefire zone between Syria and Israel.
“The EU condemns arbitrary detentions and actions such as hostage-taking as they are serious breaches of international law. The EU considers any attacks on the UN or its personnel unacceptable and demands the immediate and unconditional release of the peacekeepers,” Ashton said in a statement sent by EU’s Manila delegation on Friday.
Ashton urged parties involved “to refrain from any actions that may have negative effects on regional stability and to respect UN Security Council resolutions and the status of Undof.”
There are more than 300 Filipinos deployed as peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs. Reports from AFP, Reuters and AP, with Tarra Quismundo