Syria: Clashes erupt in area where UN troops held

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) — Syrian rebels and regime forces clashed Saturday near a village where U.N. peacekeepers are being held hostage, an activist said, complicating efforts to free them.

U.N. officials have said arrangements are in place for the release of the Filipino peacekeepers, but a rescue mission on Friday was aborted because of regime shelling in the area.

A U.N. team was en route to the village Saturday afternoon to retrieve the hostages but stopped several kilometers (miles) away because of the fighting, said a rebel spokesman.

Instead, rebels began escorting the captives to the nearby Syrian-Jordanian border, the spokesman said via Skype, insisting on anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Jordanian Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah said he was not aware of plans for the peacekeepers to be handed over to Jordan.

The U.N. force has been monitoring an Israeli-Syrian cease-fire for four decades without incident, and the abduction of the 21 men added another destabilizing twist to Syria's civil war.

The Filipino peacekeepers, taken captive on Wednesday, were 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 the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades, a rebel group. 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, but appear to have dropped the demand.

On Saturday, a spokesman for the group said a U.N. team was heading toward the area where the peacekeepers are being held.

He said a convoy of 12 vehicles — 10 from the U.N. and two from the International Committee of the Red Cross — reached the village of Ein Thakar, a few kilometers (miles) away, and was waiting for a lull in fighting to move ahead.

He said rebel commanders eventually decided that because of security concerns, it was easier to move the peacekeepers to the nearby Jordanian border. By mid-afternoon Saturday, the peaeckeepers had not yet been handed to Jordanian authorities, he said.

The report could not immediately be confirmed.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said earlier Saturday that a gunfight had erupted about three kilometers (two miles) south of Jamlah, as rebels tried to seize an army checkpoint.

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 cease-fire 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 began 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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Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem, Ben Hubbard in Beirut and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan contributed to this report.

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