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, troops from neither side are permitted to go 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,” said Churkin.
Britain to aid rebels
The crisis erupted hours after Britain announced 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 enable 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 Jabhat al-Nusra, 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.