Assad army hinders release of UN peacekeepers held in Syrian Golan
BEIRUT - A group of 21 Filipino UN peacekeepers seized by Syrian rebels in the Golan were still being held on Saturday after the expiry of a deadline for their release, a watchdog said.
"There is nothing new. They have still not been freed, even though the rebels insist they are ready to free them at any moment," said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman, who was in contact with the kidnappers.
On Friday, citing the rebels, he said an agreement had been reached between the Syrian regime and the UN for a cessation of hostilities between 0800 and 1000 GMT on Saturday to allow a Red Cross team to evacuate the 21 peacekeepers.
The agreement came after the failure of an earlier planned handover, with a UN convoy that had entered Jamla to pick up the group pulling out when the Syrian army shelled the area.
The situation in Jamla was calm early on Saturday, but by the end of the morning, "fighting broke out between rebels and soldiers, when the insurgents attacked an army unit in Aabdine, three kilometres (two miles) south of Jamla," Abdel Rahman said.
In the Philippines, a military spokesman said the government still expected its members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) to be released despite shelling late on Friday that prevented an earlier handover.
Army spokesman Colonel Randolph Cabangbang said in Manila on Saturday that the shelling had since stopped.
"After the shelling the two parties (UN and the rebels) resumed coordinating the arrangements for their release," Cabangbang said.
"The planned venue of the handover was not actually shelled. It was the route that they planned to take."
On Wednesday, the rebel Yarmuk Martyrs brigade claimed the capture of the Filipinos and said they would hold them until troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad withdrew from the Jamla area, east of the ceasefire line with Israel.
Another Philippine spokesman said the government had confirmation from the ground that the hostages were safe.
"They are being kept (by the rebels) in a safe area," Colonel Arnulfo Burgos said.
In New York, UN peacekeeping spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero said efforts to secure their release would resume on Saturday.
"Arrangements were made with all parties for the release of the 21 peacekeepers," she said. "But due to the late hour and the darkness it was considered unsafe to continue the operation. Efforts will continue tomorrow."
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said the Jamla village where the soldiers are being held came under "intense shelling" on Friday.
That was denied by Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, who said Syrian forces were doing "everything in order to bring back safely the peacekeepers."
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland accused the Syrian regime of "making it impossible for UN negotiators to get in there and try to resolve it."
The Filipinos, members of UNDOF monitoring the armistice line between Syria and Israel that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, were abducted just a mile to the Syrian side of the line.
The rebels are demanding that Syrian troops move 20 kilometres (12 miles) back from Jamla.
The Observatory said the rebels were also demanding that the International Committee of the Red Cross "guarantees the safe exit from the strife-torn area of Jamla of civilians," Abdel Rahman said.
Concern has been mounting that the abduction might prompt more governments to withdraw their contingents from the already depleted UN mission.
Israeli officials warned that any further reduction in UNDOF strength risked creating a security vacuum in the no-man's land between the two sides on the strategic Golan Heights, which it seized in the 1967 Six-Day War.
World powers remain at loggerheads over the way forward for Syria, with Western governments firm in their demand for Assad to quit, and China and Russia equally firm in their opposition to any imposed regime change.
"You know that we are not in the regime-change game," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated on Friday. "We are against interference in domestic conflicts," he told the BBC.
French President Francois Hollande said "the Russians still need to reach out and convince Bashar al-Assad to stand aside."
Clashes raged on Saturday between regime forces and rebels in Daraa in the south, the Observatory said, adding that loud blasts were also heard in Damascus province.
Government forces also used heavy artillery against rebel positions in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, it added.
At least 146 people were killed in violence in Syria on Friday, according to the Observatory, in a conflict the UN says has killed more than 70,000 people in nearly two years.