BEIRUT — Four United Nations peacekeepers were seized Tuesday in southern Syria, close to the Israeli border, the international body said, marking the second time this year that its observers have been taken in the volatile area.
A rebel group calling itself the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade said on its Facebook page that it had taken the four for their own safety, because of intense clashes with Syrian government troops near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The group said the peacekeepers were in danger from Syrian military forces and “criminal elements” in the area, and that heavy shelling was taking place.
The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, which has monitored the cease-fire between Israel and Syria since 1974, has about 900 troops in the area from the Philippines, Austria and India. The troops maintain an almost 50-mile-long “area of separation” between the two nations.
The four captives were seized near the village of Jamlah, the U.N. said in a statement, close to where 21 Filipino peacekeepers were taken by Syrian rebels in March.
Three days later, the 21 captives were released to Jordanian authorities at the Jordanian border. The incident, which also involved the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, was a major embarrassment for the Syrian opposition and highlighted the autonomous nature of rebel bands operating throughout the country without a central command structure.
The four peacekeepers seized Tuesday were also believed to be Filipinos. A photograph posted on the rebel group’s Facebook page apparently shows the four men, sitting on the floor in fatigues and blue U.N. flak vests.
A representative of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, reached via telephone on a number posted on the Facebook page, said the four men were free to leave. However, he said the rebels were calling on the U.N. peacekeeping force to hand over several Syrian soldiers who apparently had sought refuge with the international troops.
Efforts were underway to secure the peacekeepers’ release, the U.N. said, declining to provide further details.
The border strip near the Golan Heights had been relatively calm for decades, until the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad sparked clashes on the Syrian side between rebels and government troops. Opposition forces have seized considerable territory in the area.
Bulos is a special correspondent.