UN in talks to have peacekeepers freed

Fri, Mar 8, 2013, 00:00

UN officers have held talks with a Syrian rebel group holding peacekeepers seized along the Golan Heights demilitarised zone between Syria and Israel, prompting concerns that the Syrian conflict could spill across this highly sensitive regional fault line.

Israel has stated that it will not “stand idle” if threatened.

Rebel Free Syrian Army commander Salim Idriss has pledged to “do everything I can to liberate them” although he has little or no control over armed factions operating under the Free Army umbrella.

The 21 Filipinos were seized on Wednesday by a faction called Martyrs of the Yarmouk, said to be fundamentalist jihadists. This followed the earlier disappearance of another member of the 1,000-member United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, Undof.

Rebel distrust

The rebel faction’s spokesman, Abu Qaed al-Faleh, said the peacekeepers would be held until government forces pulled back from the rebel-held village of Jamlah, east of the Golan Heights, and warned that the Syrian army would be responsible if the men were harmed.

Rebels distrust the UN be cause it has not backed their campaign to topple President Bashar al-Assad. This group is being investigated by Human Rights Watch for executing Syrian soldiers captured in the Golan area.

The UN Security Council has demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the peacekeepers.

Warplanes to the north carried out strikes on rebel positions in the strategic city of Raqqa, raising fears over the fate of residents, displaced Syrians who had found sanctuary there and captured army soldiers and militiamen.

The assault on Raqqa, which had a population of 250,000 and sheltered an additional 800,000 displaced people, was led by the Jabhat al-Nusrah, a jihadi offshoot of al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq.

The Jabhat is holding the provincial governor as well as “hundreds” of regime troops and paramilitaries, reported the British-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Al-Watan, a pro-Syrian government daily, admitted that “several districts” of Raqqa had fallen but not the entire city. The air raids had killed “many terrorists” whose bodies were “sprawled on kerbsides” around the city.

The government said its recapture of Raqqa was “only a matter of time” and remarked on pick-up trucks ferrying arms from the Turkish border to the rebels. This was in response to the Arab League decision to permit member states to arm the rebels – although Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been providing weapons for over a year.

Arab League council

The Arab League also invited the opposition Syrian National Coalition to occupy the seat on the league council formerly held by the government.

While Britain says it will supply rebels with an extra £13 million (€15.5 million) in “non-lethal” aid, Germany has criticised countries providing weapons on grounds they boost regional instability.

Doctors Without Borders says Syria’s healthcare system has collapsed, accusing both sides of treating medical facilities as tools in the conflict.