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Syrian rebels seize UN peacekeepers in Golan

Syrian rebels are holding about 20 UN peacekeepers who monitor the Israel-Syria border in an attempt to force the withdrawal of Syrian Army forces from a nearby village.

A convoy of United Nations military observers has been seized by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights, according to a video posted on YouTube today.

Claiming to belong to the “Martyrs of Yarmouk”, the rebels warn that they will treat the UN soldiers as prisoners unless forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdraw from the village of Jamlah, a mile east of the ceasefire line with Israel.

“We demand from the US, the UN and the Security Council the complete withdrawal of the troops of Bashar al-Assad to release those captives… If no withdrawal is made within 24 hours we will treat them as prisoners,” said a young man who identified himself as Abu Kayed al-Fahel standing beside white-painted UN vehicles and speaking to the camera. He accused the UN troops of collaborating with Assad’s forces to push the rebels out of Jamla.

The UN in New York confirmed that about 20 peacekeepers had been detained by some 30 armed men near the Golan.

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“The UN observers were on a regular supply mission and were stopped near Observation Post 58, which had sustained damage and was evacuated this past weekend following heavy combat in close proximity,” the UN said in a statement.

The 1,047-strong UN Disengagement Observer Force has patrolled a narrow zone separating Israeli and Syrian forces since 1974. Jamlah lies at the southern end of the Golan Heights, five miles north of the border with Jordan.

The YouTube video shows at least three UN vehicles, including two trucks and an armored patrol car. At least two UN soldiers wearing blue helmets and blue flack jackets appear to be visible through the windscreen of the rear truck. Several armed men stood around the vehicles.

Israel occupied the Golan heights in June 1967 and annexed the territory to the Jewish state in 1981. Clashes between the Syrian Army and opposition rebels have broken the calm along what was formerly Israel’s quietest frontier. Several stray artillery rounds have fallen in the disengagement zone and on the Israeli side of the line.

Last week, Zoran Milanocevic, the prime minister of Croatia, one of the four contributing countries to UNDOF, reportedly said that he would pull his troops out of the Golan for security reasons. He cited an article in The New York Times that said Croatian weapons have begun appearing in the hands of armed rebel factions with the Free Syrian Army.

It is unclear whether Croatia has made any formal move to withdraw its troops from UNDOF. Nevertheless, the peace along the Golan front risks being ruptured not only by fighting between Syrian troops and the FSA spilling across the demarcation line, but also by radical Islamist groups moving into the area.

Israel’s Arutz Sheva radio reported today that Israeli troops patrolling the demarcation line had been shadowed by “Al Qaeda terrorists” from the Syrian Islamic Front.

Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, sent a letter this week to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warning that the situation on the Golan risked an escalation.

“So far, Israel has shown maximum restraint,” Prosor wrote. “You must act as soon as possible before the situation deteriorates… Israel will not stand by while its citizens’ lives are at risk from reckless behavior in Syria.”