Saturday, March 09, 2013
U.N. convoy to retrieve Golan peacekeepers delayed - rebel
By Dominic Evans
BEIRUT (Reuters) - A U.N. convoy sent to retrieve 21 Filipino peacekeepers captured by rebels in a southern Syrian village three days ago has been held up after one of its vehicles broke down, a Syrian rebel source said on Saturday.
But he said a ceasefire around the village of Jamla appeared to be holding and the convoy of seven U.N. vehicles, held up about 6 km (4 miles) northeast of Jamla, would still be able to collect the peacekeepers once it was mobile again.
"The U.N. convoy has reached the village of Ain Dhakar but has halted there because of technical difficulties," Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the Martyrs of Yarmouk brigade, told Reuters by Skype.
The peacekeepers - part of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) that has been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights since 1974 - were seized by the Martyrs of Yarmouk rebel brigade on Wednesday.
They have been held in Jamla, a village one mile (1.6 km) from the Israeli-occupied Golan. After their capture, insurgents described them as "guests" and said they would be freed once President Bashar al-Assad's forces pull back from around Jamla and stop shelling.
A brief truce was agreed on Saturday morning to allow for the peacekeepers' retrieval. Although the two-hour window of that ceasefire passed at midday (1000 GMT) before they could be extracted, the rebels said relative calm prevailed.
Taseel said the area around Jamla was quiet apart from some "limited clashes" to the south which he said would not impede the peacekeepers' recovery.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighters from the Martyrs of Yarmouk and other brigades took control of a military position in the village of Abdin, about 2 km (1.2 miles) south of Jamla on Saturday.
A rescue effort on Friday was delayed by heavy bombardment and abandoned after nightfall, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said. "(Jamla) is subject to intense shelling by the Syrian armed forces," he told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council on the situation.
Syria's nearly two-year civil war has spilled periodically across the Golan Heights ceasefire line and Syria's borders with Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, threatening to engulf the region. The conflict began as peaceful protests, but turned violent when Assad ordered a crackdown on the demonstrations.
Ladsous warned that once the peacekeepers were released, "we would strongly expect that there would not be retaliatory action by the Syrian armed forces over the village and its civilian population".
Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said the army was targeting areas outside Jamla where he said the rebels were concentrated, not the village itself. "We know for sure what we are doing and we know where the peacekeepers are," he said.
"The Syrian government forces are doing exactly what they have to do in order to bring back safely the peacekeepers, guarantee the safety and security of the inhabitants of these villages (and) get these armed group terrorists out of the area," Ja'afari said.
In several videos released on Thursday, the peacekeepers said they were being treated well by civilians and rebels. The United Nations said the captives had been detained by about 30 rebel fighters, but Taseel said the men were "guests," not hostages, and were being held for their own safety.
Under an agreement brokered by the United States in 1974, Israel and Syria are allowed a limited number of tanks and troops within 20 km (13 miles) of the disengagement line.
A U.N. report in December said both the Syrian army and rebels had entered the demilitarised area between Syrian and Israeli forces. It said that violence in the area showed the potential for escalation across the frontier, jeopardising the ceasefire between the two countries.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, editing by Mark Heinrich)
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