Syria rebels seize UN peacekeepers, take key city

UN officials today said negotiations were under way with Syrian rebels who seized 21 UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights ceasefire zone between Syria and Israel, as rebels took total control of the key northern city of Raqa.

Syrian rebels yesterday abducted the peacekeepers, who are from the Philippines, diplomats said, as the frontiers of their war against President Bashar al-Assad spread further.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for their "immediate" release and demanded the Syrian government and rebels respect their "freedom of movement and security".

The UN said it was trying to negotiate the release of the soldiers, while a rebel spokesman said the troops would be held until Assad's forces pull back from a Golan village.

Officials in Manila urged the troops, who are part of a 300-strong Filipino peacekeeping unit, to be released immediately. Philippine armed forces spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos told AFP the rebels were treating the hostages well.

"They are being treated as guests, not as hostiles," Burgos said, adding: "We have high hopes that they are going to be released soon."

Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who read the Security Council statement on the situation, said the rebels have made demands directed at the Syrian government, but gave no details.

The United Nations has reported a growing number of incidents in the Golan over the past year. It has sent extra armored vehicles and communications equipment to reinforce security for the mission.

The Britain-based watchdog Syrian Observatory for Human Rights distributed two amateur videos with statements by the rebel Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade claiming the capture.

A man identified as brigade spokesman Abu Kaid al-Faleh said the peacekeepers would not be freed until Syrian regime forces pull out of the area.

"If they do not withdraw, these men (UN troops) will be treated as prisoners," he said, accusing the UN Disengagement Force (UNDOF) -- which monitors a 1974 ceasefire deal between Syria and Israel -- of working with the army to try to suppress the insurgency.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters after brief ing the Security Council that negotiations are underway "and the matter is mobilizing all our teams".
Meanwhile, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned that one million Syrians have fled their homeland since the revolt erupted two years ago.

"With a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally and thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiralling towards full-scale disaster," Guterres said.

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