Syrian rebel group claims 20 U.N. observers were being rescued, not kidnapped

REUTERS TV/Reuters - An armed member of the Al Yarmouk Martyr brigade is seen in front of a white vehicle with 'UN' written on it at what is said to be Jamla, Syria near Golan Heights, on March 6, 2013.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — A Syrian rebel group that once claimed it had abducted a group of U.N. observers in the Golan Heights announced Thursday that it had in fact rescued them from fighting in the area and called on the United Nations to send a security convoy to pick them up.

The announcement by the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade was posted on the same Facebook page that was used to publicize the abduction Wednesday. A video in which the kidnappers warned that the observers would not be released until Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew troops from the area had been deleted, suggesting that overnight negotiations to secure the groups’ release may be working.

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“With God’s help we managed to secure a group of U.N. members working in the border town of Jamlah after they were victims of the criminal shelling of Assad’s gangs,” the statement said. “We request from the United Nations to send us a security convoy so that we can deliver them to the organization.”

“We have nothing to do with any of the old statements before this one,” added the posting on the brigade’s Facebook page.

A spokesman for the United Nations said Thursday that officials had “been in touch with the peacekeepers by telephone and confirmed that they have not been harmed.”

The rebels abducted about 20 U.N. observers from the Golan Heights on Wednesday and threatened to hold them until the Syrian government withdrew its troops from the area, marking the most serious escalation of the conflict yet along Syria’s southern border with Israel.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council swiftly issued a statement blaming “armed elements” of the Syrian opposition for the abduction and demanding the “unconditional and immediate release” of all the observers.

On a day that the number of Syrian refugees who have fled the fighting officially passed the 1 million mark, the incident highlighted the danger that Syria’s spiraling conflict will spill beyond its borders and draw in not only the country’s neighbors but perhaps also the wider international community. The vast majority of the refugees have sought sanctuary in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, where they are straining resources and threatening the stability of communities that are often already volatile.

“It seems that lately some people are trying very hard in order to extend the geography of the Syrian conflict,” said Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, speaking after the Security Council session. He noted that the abduction came two days after Iraqi insurgents killed nine Iraqi guards along with 48 Syrian soldiers who had fled rebel advances into Iraq and were being escorted back to Syria when they were ambushed.

“Somebody is trying very hard in order to blow this crisis up,” Churkin said.

The United Nations’ top peacekeeper, Herve Ladsous, had confirmed on Wednesday that negotiations were underway to secure the freedom of the observers, who serve as part of the U.N.’s Disengagement Observer Force monitoring the 1967 cease-fire line between Syria and Israel.

“It’s a very serious incident,” Ladsous told reporters after briefing the council.

According to a U.N. statement, about 20 observers on a regular supply mission to the no man’s land between Israel and Syria were detained by a group of approximately 30 armed fighters, near a post that had been damaged in recent fighting and evacuated over the weekend. A U.N. official said the peacekeepers were from the Philippines.

The abductions were first publicized in a video posted on the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade’s Facebook page. The camera pans to show several white armored vehicles painted with the U.N. logo as a fighter, cleanshaven and wearing a black woolen hat, calls upon “America and the U.N. Security Council” to address the group’s demands.

“We won’t release them unless Bashar al-Assad’s troops withdraw from the village of Jamlah on the border with Israel,” the man says, referring to Syria’s president. “If they don’t leave within 48 hours, we are going to deal with these people as prisoners.”

The mainstream rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, condemned the abductions and said it has no relationship with those holding the observers.

A U.N. official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the negotiations said the group appears to be composed primarily of Palestinian fighters loosely affiliated with the armed insurgency. Yarmouk is the name of Syria’s biggest Palestinian refugee camp, in Damascus.

The kidnapping also illuminated an overlooked front in the fierce battle raging for control of Syria. The area where the observers were seized has been a demilitarized zone since 1967, when Israel occupied most of the mountainous region of Syria known as the Golan Heights. Under the terms of the cease-fire that ended the war, both Israeli and Syrian troops are barred from going there, an arrangement overseen for the past four decades by the U.N. observers.

But as the fighting has spread southward in recent months, Syrians living in Golan villages have joined the rebellion against Assad, drawing Syrian troops into the area to battle them. Several stray shells fired by the Syrian security forces have exploded in Israeli territory, and on a few occasions the Israelis have fired back.

The mandate of the observers had not been adjusted to fit the new circumstances, leaving them dangerously exposed, U.N. officials noted.

“This was something that was not in any way addressed or envisaged,” Churkin said.

Britain to aid opposition

The crisis erupted hours after Britain announced that it had secured an exemption to a European arms embargo against Syria that would enable it to supply nonlethal military equipment to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the umbrella political movement that purports to represent Assad’s opponents.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament the supplies would include body armor and armored four-wheel-drive vehicles to help the rebellion’s civilian leaders to protect themselves.

The $20 million package follows a $60 million offer of non­lethal aid made last week by the United States, part of an increasingly vigorous effort by Western countries and their Arab allies to counter the expanding influence of Islamist radicals over the Syrian rebellion by stepping up aid to the more moderate elements of the opposition.

Fighters with the extremist al-Nusra Front, suspected of ties to al-Qaeda and blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the United States, appear to have played a prominent role alongside Free Syrian Army fighters in the most recent rebel victory in the eastern city of Raqqah.

The city’s last government buildings were overrun Wednesday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, giving the rebels tenuous control over their first provincial capital.

But in a reminder that the government still controls the skies, warplanes dropped bombs on the city, and residents said thousands of people were fleeing toward the Turkish border for fear of further airstrikes.

Lynch reported from the United Nations. Ahmed Ramadan and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Beirut contributed to this report.

 
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