It appears the 21 peacekeepers held hostage by Syrian rebels could finally be released on Saturday, following an agreement for a two-hour truce between government troops and opposition forces. The release bid very nearly failed on Friday.
The UN head of peacekeeping Herve Ladsous reported that the men were held in the basements of houses close to the border with Israel’s Golan Heights, which has been battered by heavy shelling from Syria.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the two sides agreed for a ceasefire to take effect between 10am and 12 pm (8-10 GMT), a window for the UN to retrieve the captives. Arrangements had already been in place for Friday, but the late hours and the darkness were deemed unsafe conditions for such an operation. The rebels’ spokesman claimed that the convoy had been within a kilometer of its destination, but couldn’t continue because of heavy air bombardment of the area by Syrian government forces.
However, there were other obstacles to the hostages’ release. The rebels were expected to free them earlier on Friday and hand them over to the Red Cross, yet they went back on their word, re-iterating their initial demands: that the Syrian government withdraws from the village of Jamla. The changes in mood could be attributed to a lack of consensus within rebel ranks, who stressed earlier that the hostages were their “guests” and would never be harmed.
The peacekeepers, who are part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), were abducted on Wednesday by a group calling themselves the Martyrs of Yanouk. The attack happened in the Golan Heights, where the peacekeepers were monitoring the Syrian-Israeli ceasefire since 1974. The area was claimed by Israel, but never recognized either by the Syrian government, or the international community.
News of the peacekeepers’ abduction was greeted with widespread condemnation by the UN. The US called it “absolutely unacceptable”, while the EU called such moves “serious breaches of international law.” Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin said the seizure of the UN observers showed “gross disrespect for the United Nations.”
It’s not clear whether the militant group had changed their intentions about the hostages due to international pressure or because they thought that holding UN personnel did not give them enough leverage to force the Syrian government troops out of Jamla.
The incident will not make the UN withdraw its peacekeeping force from the Golan Heights, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said. Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja’afari, explained that Syria was targeting rebel-held areas outside Jamla, never the village itself. “The Syrian government forces are doing exactly what they have to do in order to safely bring back the peacekeepers, guarantee the safety and security of the inhabitants of these villages (and) get these armed group of terrorists out of the area,” Ja’afari said.
Syria’s bloody civil war has now been ongoing for two years, spilling over the Golan Heights ceasefire line, as well as Syria’s border with Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, threatening to spread to the entire region.