Talks begin to free 21 UN peacekeepers captured by Syrian rebels (VIDEO)


UN peacekeepers, including Filipinos, cross the Quneitra checkpoint between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights on March 07, 2013. Syrian rebels kept 21 UN peacekeepers hostage on the Golan Heights despite world condemnation of the spillover of Syria's conflict onto the sensitive armistice line with Israel.



JERUSALEM ― Syrian rebels holding 21 United Nations peacekeepers have accused them of "collaborating with Israel" and have threatened to treat them as "hostages" as talks begin to free them.

The Syrians, who captured the peacekeepers Wednesday in the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel, had initially said they were "guests" who would not be harmed.

Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted a spokesman for the Martyrs of Yarmouk rebel brigade earlier on Thursday as saying the peacekeepers were being held in the village of Jamla, Reuters reported.

"He said they will not be harmed," he said. "But the rebels want the Syrian army and tanks to pull back from the area."

The Free Syrian Army, or FSA, called the kidnapping a "mistake" carried out by a splinter group without permission.

Israeli media reports that a deal to return the peacekeepers to their base is imminent within the next 24 hours.

"Restricting the movement of troops in an international force is a significant event," Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official, told Israel Radio. "The United Nations... can be trusted to persuade them [the rebels] ultimately to free them."

Gilad said the rebels aren't interested in antagonizing the international community.

More on GlobalPost: Syrian rebels seize 21 UN observers near the Golan Heights (VIDEO)

The situation threatens to taint the reputation of the FSA, which relies on Western support.

FSA political and media coordinator Louay al-Mokdad told The Washington Post, "We are not responsible for this, and we are in communication with all our groups to figure out who this group is and to try to solve it as soon as we can."

"This is not the right action to take," he added. "We should protect the UN soldiers."

A video was released on Thursday purporting to show six of the Filipino UN peacekeepers. One of the men identifies himself as a captain in the battalion and says, according to the Guardian:

We are here safe in this place. We are here because while we were passing through position [inaudible] to al-Jamlah there were bombings and artillery fires. This is why we stopped and civilian people helped us for our safety and distributed us in different places to keep us safe. They gave us good accommodation and gave us food to eat and water to drink.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino said the UN was in touch with the rebels to ensure the safety of the peacekeepers. "By tomorrow they expect all of these 21 to be released," Reuters reported him as saying.

UN officials suspect the captors include armed Palestinian refugees loosely allied with the Syrian insurgency.

The video has not been verified: