Lull in fighting where UN troops held in Syria

Associated Press
A U.N. peacekeeper from the UNDOF force stands guard on a watch tower at the Quneitra Crossing between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Friday, March 8, 2013. Syrian rebels who seized 21 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights want the Red Cross to escort them out of the area because of fighting with Syrian government forces, the Philippine military said Friday. The 21 peacekeepers were seized Wednesday near the Syrian village of Jamlah, just a mile from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights in an area where the U.N. force had patrolled a cease-fire line between Israel and Syria without incident for nearly four decades. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
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BEIRUT (AP) — A lull in fighting Saturday in an area of Syria where 21 U.N. peacekeepers are being held by rebels has opened the door for their possible release, an activist said.

U.N. officials said arrangements are in place for the release of the U.N. peacekeepers, but that a rescue mission on Friday was aborted because of regime shelling in the area. Rescue efforts were to resume on Saturday, officials said.

The U.N. force has been monitoring an Israeli-Syrian ceasefire for four decades without incident, and their abduction added another destabilizing twist to Syria's civil war.

The Filipino peacekeepers, who were taken on Wednesday, are being held in the basements of several houses in the village of Jamlah, near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, U.N. officials said.

The peacekeepers were taken by a rebel group calling itself the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades. In the days leading up to the abduction, rebel fighters had overrun several Syrian military checkpoints in the area, and regime forces responded with shelling attacks.

Rebels initially said they would only release the hostages if Syrian forces withdraw from the area.

However, Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said the rebels apparently have dropped that demand.

Abdul-Rahman said a contact in the Jamlah area told him there was no shelling in the Jamlah area on Saturday.

At the United Nations, peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, on Friday urged regime forces to refrain from retaliation against the village if the U.N. troops are freed.

"As of now, there is perhaps a hope — but I have to be extremely cautious because it is not done yet — but there is the possibility that a ceasefire of a few hours can intervene which would allow for our people to be released," he said after briefing the U.N. Security Council.

The rebels have posted several videos showing the hostages, apparently to show they are being treated well.

A video posted Friday and distributed by the U.S. SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant forums, showed three U.N. peacekeepers wearing trademark blue U.N. vests over their camouflage uniforms as they sat on a low sofa. In the video, a bearded man with a two-way radio sits down between two of them, puts his arms around their shoulders and flashes a victory sign.

The Syria conflict broke out two years ago, starting with largely peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar Assad. A harsh regime crackdown triggered an armed insurgency that has turned into a full-scale civil war.

The U.N. estimates that the conflict has claimed more than 70,000 lives and forced nearly 4 million people from their homes. The fighting has devastated large areas of the country.

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