Syrian troops fight rebels in restive south

BEIRUT (AP) — Clashes between Syrian troops and rebel fighters flared on Thursday near an area where armed fighters linked to the opposition abducted 21 U.N. peacekeepers a day earlier.

The peacekeepers are part of a force that monitors a cease-fire between Israeli and Syrian troops in the Golan Heights. Israel captured part of the territory in the 1967 Mideast war, and while the area has been peaceful for decades, Israeli officials have grown increasingly jittery as the Syrian civil war moves closer to its borders.

On Thursday, the Syrian army battled opposition fighters near the Golan Heights in the southern province of Daraa, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. He said the fighting was concentrated on the outskirts of the Syrian village of Jamlah, where gunmen on Wednesday detained 21 U.N. peacekeepers from the Philippines.

In an online video, a man identified as a spokesman for the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades said his group will hold the peacekeepers until Assad's forces withdraw from Jamlah.

The Yarmouk Brigades said in a statement on its Facebook page on Thursday that Assad's troops are pounding the Jamlah, and warned that the army will be responsible if the peacekeepers in rebel custody are harmed.

In the Philippines, the government said Thursday that talks were under way for the release of the peacekeepers.

Foreign Affairs Department spokesman Raul Hernandez said the 21 were unharmed and were being treated as "visitors and guests."

The capture came a week after the announcement that a member of the peacekeeping force is missing. The force, known as UNDOF, was established a year after the 1973 war. It monitors the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces and maintains a cease-fire.