U.N. Starts Talks to Free Peacekeepers Held by Syria Rebels

United Nations officials negotiated on Thursday with Syrian rebels who had seized a group of United Nations peacekeepers in the disputed Golan Heights region between Syria and Israel, as the rebels offered assurances of the peacekeepers’ well-being and appeared to back away from threats to hold them as hostages.

Israel, which has watched anxiously for spillover as the Syrian civil war has intensified, signaled Thursday that it had no intention of becoming embroiled in the situation. Amos Gilad, a senior official in the Defense Ministry, told Israel Radio that “we can rely on the U.N. to persuade” the insurgent fighters to release the peacekeepers, who are from the Philippines, and that “neither the rebels nor anyone else has an interest in clashing with the international community, which it needs for support.”

The authorities in Manila said the troops had not been harmed, and President Benigno S. Aquino III said he believed the peacekeepers would be viewed by both sides in the Syrian conflict as a “benign presence, so we don’t expect any further untoward incident to happen.”

The 21 peacekeepers seized Wednesday are part of a United Nations force that was set up to patrol the demilitarized zone along Syria’s Golan frontier after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and their detention was the first time any United Nations forces had been drawn into the Syrian war.

A group calling itself Martyrs of Yarmouk claimed responsibility for capturing the unit and, in a video posted on the Internet, threatened that if Syrian forces did not withdraw from the surrounding area within 24 hours, the peacekeepers would be dealt with “like war prisoners.”

But on Thursday, a statement on what appeared to be the group’s Facebook page asserted that the rebels had acted to protect the Filipino unit from a Syrian government assault. “With God’s help, we were able to keep a group of U.N. members, who work in the border village of Al Jamlah, safe from the barbaric shelling of Assad’s criminal gang,” it said, referring to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

The peacekeepers were “under our protection until we can get them to safe areas,” the post continued.

“We dissociate ourselves from all statements issued prior to this one regarding the detention of U.N. personnel,” it said. “They are now safe and honored and hosted as guests by the brigade’s leadership until we can deliver them safely to their headquarters.”

A series of videos was also posted on the Internet showing different groups of the peacekeepers offering remarkably similar accounts. In each, an officer identifies himself and his unit, explains that they came under fire from government forces and were aided by civilians, who were giving them food and water and keeping them safe.

A spokesman for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group based in Britain, said Thursday that the rebels were seeking the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the area, a halt to their shelling and a secure road to use to hand the Filipino soldiers over to international forces in the Quneitra border region. The observatory, which has a network of opposition contacts in Syria, said the soldiers were still in Al Jamlah and reported “clashes” between government troops and rebels on Thursday on the village’s northern outskirts. There was no immediate independent confirmation.

The group said that Arab League representatives had joined United Nations officials in negotiating with the rebels.

Violence continued elsewhere, with activists reporting that warplanes struck the north-central city of Raqqa, where rebels have made gains in recent days, and that the neighborhood of Khalidiya, in Homs, was being shelled.

There were also reports of a warplane crashing in a southern suburb of the northern city of Idlib. An activist working with the Syrian Observatory said it was hit by antiaircraft fire and poured out black smoke. Other witnesses said they saw two parachutes.

The scale of the destruction wrought by the almost two-year-old conflict emerged starkly on Thursday when Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian aid organization, said in a report that Syria’s once-efficient health care network had broken down, with patients treated in caves and basements as large numbers of hospitals closed and medical facilities became tools “in the military strategies of the parties to the conflict.”

“Medical aid is being targeted, hospitals destroyed and medical personnel captured,” said Marie-Pierre Allié, the president of Doctors without Borders.

The report, issued in New York, added to a catalog of woes this week as the number of refugees fleeing Syria exceeded a million and the school system was reported to have collapsed.

Alan Cowell reported from London, and Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon. Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

Source http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/08/world/middleeast/syria-developments.html?pagewanted=all


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