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Middle east

Convoy sent for UN hostages delayed by shelling

© AFP

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2013-03-09

A UN convoy sent to Syria's Golan village of Jamla on Friday to pick up the 21 UN Philippine peacekeepers seized by Syrian rebels earlier this week had to pull back as the Syrian army began shelling the area.

A UN convoy attempting to pick up 21 Filipino peackeepers that their Syrian rebel captors had agreed to free was forced back by a barrage of army shelling on Friday, a watchdog said.

In New York, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said the village where the soldiers are being held was coming under intense shelling.

That was denied by Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, who said everything was being done to get them out safely.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said a UN convoy entered the Syrian village of Jamla to collect the peacekeepers and that the army shelled the area, a watchdog told AFP.

"When the UN vehicles entered into Jamla, the Syrian army shelled a nearby village. The UN cars then withdraw from Jamla," said Abdel Rahman, who earlier claimed the rebels were willing to hand over their captives.

Ladsous said Jamla was under intense bombardment from army forces, and expressed hope that a possible ceasefire would lead to the freeing of the peacekeepers, who have been held by rebels since Wednesday.

"That village is subject to intense shelling by the Syrian armed forces," he said. "There is perhaps a hope, but it is not done yet... that a ceasefire of a few hours can intervene which would allow for our people to be released."

He also said "we would strongly expect that there would not be retaliatory action by the Syrian armed forces over the village and its civilian population after our people have left."

For his part, Jaafari said "Syrian forces are not targeting the village. They are doing everything in order to bring back safely the peacekeepers and get the armed terrorist groups out of there."

The Filipinos, members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) monitoring the armistice between Syria and Israel that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, were abducted by the rebels on Wednesday just one and a half kilometres (a mile) to the Syrian side of the ceasefire line.

The refusal by the rebels to compromise had dampened hopes of a swift release and forced Manila to step up its negotiation efforts, Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said.

The rebels are demanding that Syrian troops move 20 kilometres (12 miles) back from Jamla, an area at the southern end of the armistice zone in the Golan, Hernandez said.

"The demand of the rebels for the repositioning of Syrian forces in the area of Jamla is still outstanding so this is still being worked out," he said on the Philippines ABS-CBN television.

The Philippine government had previously received information that raised hopes the 21 would be released on Friday and the government now did not know if or when they would be freed, Hernandez said.

"We are trying to intensify our negotiations with the rebel groups," he said adding that the hostages were nonetheless being treated well.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels had added a fresh demand.

"They are now demanding a new condition -- that the International Committee of the Red Cross guarantees the safe exit from the strife-torn area of Jamla of civilians," Abdel Rahman, the director of the Britain-based watchdog, told AFP.

In Manila, the brother of one of hostages issued a televised appeal for the peacekeepers' release.

Xy-son Meneses said he was concerned for his brother, Captain Xy-rus Meneses, who appeared in an Internet video with the other captured Filipinos shortly after their abduction.

"They are not there to cause trouble but to help maintain peace in Syria so I ask if they can release them," he said.

Concern has been mounting that the Filipinos' seizure might prompt more governments to withdraw troops from the already depleted UN mission.

Israeli officials warned that any further reduction in its 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.

The Israeli army revealed that it helped eight UN peacekeepers redeploy through Israeli-held territory overnight from an isolated post in the area where the hostages are being held.

"Eight UNDOF soldiers were evacuated from a post located within the demilitarised zone in the Syrian Golan Heights," the spokeswoman told AFP, adding that Israeli troops escorted them north to another UN base.

The rebel activity so close to the armistice line, coming after violent incidents on the Iraqi, Lebanese and Turkish borders, has stoked fears of a spillover of the two-year-old conflict as it degenerates into a protracted civil war.

A total of 74 people were killed in the Syrian conflict on Friday, the Observatory said.

World powers remain at loggerheads over the way forward, with Western governments firm in their demand for President Bashar al-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.

Ladsous was speaking as concern mounted about implications for the future of the four-decade-old UN force patrolling the sensitive armistice line between Israel and Syria.

(AFP)

Date created : 2013-03-08

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