Syria Rebels Seize UN Peacekeepers, Take Key City

Syria Rebels Seize UN Peacekeepers, Take Key City

Syrian rebels said they seized some 20 UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel as rebels took total control of the key northern city of Raqa.

UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey told reporters the UN Disengagement Force (UNDOF) had reported that “approximately 30 armed fighters stopped and detained about 20 peacekeepers within the area of limitation.”

Diplomats in New York and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the peacekeepers were from the Philippines.

The Britain-based watchdog distributed two amateur videos with statements by the rebel Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade claiming the capture.

A man identified as brigade spokesman Abu Kaid al-Faleh said the peacekeepers would not be freed until Syrian regime forces pull out of the area.

The UN Security Council demanded that the rebels release the peacekeepers, and peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said negotiations were being held with them.

The Philippines also called Thursday for the immediate release of the Filipino peacekeepers.

In a statement, the department said that all the hostages were reported to be unharmed.

Philippine armed forces spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos told AFP the rebels were treating the hostages well, adding: “They are being treated as guests, not as hostiles (enemy force)Meanwhile, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned that one million Syrians have fled their homeland since the revolt erupted two years ago.

Only a year ago, the UN agency had registered only 33,000 refugees. The exodus has intensified this year, the UNHCR said, with 400,000 Syrians fleeing their country since January 1, mostly to the country’s neighbours.

On the ground, the northern city of Raqa came under total rebel control on Wednesday, two days into battles with troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Earlier, an air raid on Raqa killed and wounded dozens of people, the Observatory said. Warplanes also bombarded Homs in central Syria, on the fourth day of a major offensive in the country’s third-largest city.

Near Damascus, the air force bombarded several rebel enclaves, said the watchdog which relies on a vast network of activists and medics on the ground.

The United Nations says at least 70,000 people have been killed since the start of the uprising, and the Observatory said at least 121 were killed on Wednesday.

Visiting the European Parliament in Brussels, the chief of staff of the rebel Free Syrian Amy said Assad’s regime could be toppled quickly if Western nations armed the insurgency.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said London will provide body armour and armoured vehicles to the rebels, as part of “non-lethal” aid worth $20 million.

In Cairo, the Arab League called for the opposition National Coalition “to form an executive body to take up Syria’s seat” and attend its next summit, in Doha on March 26-27.

Syria’s foreign ministry said it reiterated its “rejection of any role for the Arab League in a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Syria,” accusing it of being hostage to rebel supporters Qatar and Saudi Arabia and manipulated by the “monarchies of money, oil and gas.”

Elsewhere, Russia said its point man on Syria would meet his US counterpart and UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in London on Thursday.

Moscow is upset with a US decision to also step up non-military support for the rebels, and opposes calls for Assad to quit before talks between the regime and opposition.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, in comments to Fox News, said “a lot of countries” are training Syrian rebels as part of stepped up efforts to topple Assad.