The rebels who kidnapped 21 UN peacekeepers in the Syrian side of the Golan Heights said on their Facebook page Thursday that the act was meant to stop the Syrian army's attacks on rebels and civilians.
The rebels said they were treating the captured Filipino peacekeepers like guests, but manila is demanding their immediate release and has called their detention "illegal."
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Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted a spokesman for the "Martyrs of Yarmouk" rebel brigade as saying the convoy of peacekeepers were being held as "guests" in the village of Jamla, about one mile from a ceasefire line with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
"He said they will not be harmed. But the rebels want the Syrian army and tanks to pull back from the area," Abdelrahman said after speaking to the rebel spokesman on Thursday morning.
"Martyrs of Yarmouk" Facebook page
The "Martyrs of Yarmouk" wrote on Facebook pages affiliated with the brigade, "With Allah's help the group of UN people operating in the village of Jamlah on the border was protected from the systematic shelling of Assad's criminal gangs."
Video posted by 'Martyrs of Yarmouk'
The rebels, who renounced their previous statements according to which they were holding the peacekeepers by force, said the peacekeepers are safe and sound and are being held at the rebel brigade's headquarters until they will be transferred to their own headquarters.
The rebels also posted a photo of a teenager carrying a sign reading, "Thousands of Syrians have been killed and there was no condemnation. Now, after we accommodated 20 UN peacekeepers, you (UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon) issue a strong condemnation?"
UN forces on Syrian border (Photo: AFP)
On Wednesday the rebel brigade threatened to treat the peacekeepers like prisoners of war unless Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces withdraw from t Jamlah. They accused the UN of cooperating with the regime in Damascus, as well as with Israel.
On Thursday morning the rebels reported that the clashes with Assad's forces in Jamlah have resumed. "The Syrian army is intensifying the shelling of Jamlah and is trying to harm the UN's people. Members of the Free Syrian Army are protecting them," the rebels said in a statement.
Filipino Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said overnight that "the main concern of the Philippine government at this time is to ensure the safety and well-being of our peacekeepers."
Del Rosario's spokesman told reporters in a televised press conference that "the apprehension and illegal detention of the Filipino peacekeepers are gross violations of international law."
The Department of Foreign Affairs further said in its statement that the Filipino UN peacekeepers "are international personnel clothed with immunity and mantle of protection similar to diplomatic agents and personnel. These rights are inviolable and their transgression is punishable under international law."
Del Rosario also pointed out that the Filipino peacekeepers were operating under the UN flag.
President Benigno Aquino expressed optimism the peacekeepers would be released quickly.
"I understand they are being treated well… so far, nobody has been saying that they are in danger," he told reporters.
Aquino said UN peacekeeping leaders in the Golan were negotiating with the Syrian rebels.
"They (UN chiefs) expect all of these 21 to be released," he said.
Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the department at the United Nations that oversees the Golan operation, said the peacekeepers were captured near an observation post that had been evacuated over the past weekend after what she called "heavy combat in proximity" in the southern part of the area they control. The peacekeepers, in a convoy of trucks, had returned to investigate damage to the post when they were taken by about 30 armed rebels.
Guerrero said that the peacekeeping mission was "dispatching a team to assess the situation and attempt a resolution," and that the Syrian authorities had been asked to help.
A UN Disengagement Force has been monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974.
Reuters, AFP contributed to the report