Intense Syrian army bombardment prevented a convoy of United Nations vehicles on Friday from reaching and retrieving 21 U.N. peacekeepers seized by rebels near the Golan Heights two days ago, a rebel spokesman said.
Abu Essam Taseel said the convoy had reached the village of Nafea, about a kilometer (half a mile) east of Jamla where the Filipino peacekeepers were held on Wednesday, but was unable to venture further because of the bombardment.
At the United Nations, peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said he hoped a brief ceasefire could be reached between the rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad to allow the U.N. men to be taken to safety.
“Our 21 peacekeepers are detained in the village of Jamla. Apparently they are safe, they have been spread into four locations within that village, in the basements of various houses,” Ladsous said after briefing the Security Council.
“That particular village (Jamla) is subject to intense shelling by the Syrian armed forces.”
“As of now there is perhaps a hope … there is the possibility that a ceasefire of a few hours can intervene which would allow for our people to be released.”
Syria’s U.N. ambassador Bashar Jaafari told reporters that the army was targeting areas outside Jamla where he said the rebels were concentrated, not the village itself.
“We know for sure what we are doing and we know where the peacekeepers are,” he said. “The Syrian government forces are doing exactly what they have to do in order to bring back safely the peacekeepers, guarantee the safety and security of the inhabitants of these villages (and) get these armed group terrorists out of the area.”
The peacekeepers are part of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights since 1974.
Their capture just a mile from Israeli-held lines is further evidence of how Syria’s conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over into neighboring countries.
The Martyrs of Yarmouk rebel brigade who took them on Wednesday have said they would only be released once Assad’s forces retreated from around Jamla and halted bombing there.
Taseel said three army tanks and two military cars had pulled back from around Jamla but Assad’s forces were still deployed around it and bombarding the region.
INCURSIONS IN DE-MILITARISED ZONE
In several videos released on Thursday, the peacekeepers said they were being treated well by civilians and rebels.
The United Nations said the captives had been detained by around 30 rebel fighters, but Taseel said the men were “guests”, not hostages, and were being held for their own safety.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said earlier it was ready to receive the U.N. men once they were released but would not get involved in negotiations.
The ICRC was ready “to play the role of neutral intermediary in the framework of the kidnapping of the UNDOF soldiers provided that this is agreeable to all the parties concerned”, ICRC spokeswoman Dibeh Fakhr told Reuters in Geneva.
Under an agreement brokered by the United States in 1974, Israel and Syria are allowed a limited number of tanks and troops within 20 km (13 miles) of the disengagement line.
Taseel said the Syrian military had exceeded those limits and that its warplanes were bombing opposition targets within 500 meters (yards) of the disengagement line – something he said the U.N. peacekeepers had a duty to prevent.
A U.N. report in December said both the Syrian army and rebels had entered the de-militarized area between Syrian and Israeli forces, and that Syrian army operations had “affected adversely” UNDOF operations.
Referring to incidents including shelling from Syrian territory last year, it said: “Recent incidents across the ceasefire line have shown the potential for escalation of tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic, and jeopardize the ceasefire between the two countries.”
In January, Israel bombed an arms convoy in Syria which may have been destined for its Lebanese foe Hezbollah, diplomats and security sources said. Israel has said it will not “stand idle” if violence spreads to the Golan, which it captured in 1967.
The United Nations said in a statement that seven peacekeepers manning a position in the area of separation were withdrawn to the main UNDOF base on Friday “as a security precaution after armed opposition elements took over a nearby Syrian army post”.
The measure is likely to pose further questions over the future of the peacekeeping force. Croatia announced last week it was pulling out its UNDOF soldiers as a precautionary step over concerns for their safety after media reports that Croatian arms were being sent to rebels.
The United Nations says about 70,000 people have been killed in Syria in the past two years. An uprising that began with mainly peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 has spiraled into an increasingly sectarian armed conflict.