UN says arrangements made to free peacekeepers

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By EDITH M. LEDERER, Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Arrangements have been made with all parties for the release of 21 U.N. peacekeepers held captive by Syrian rebels, although the operation was delayed as darkness fell Friday, the United Nations said.

A team of peacekeepers was sent Friday to bring back their colleagues, who are being held in the village of Jamlah near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, said Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Peacekeeping Department.

Because of the late hour and darkness "it was considered unsafe to continue the operation" but efforts will resume Saturday, she said.

The captive troops, all Filipinos, are from a peacekeeping mission that had monitored a cease-fire line between Israel and Syria without incident for nearly four decades. Their abduction Wednesday illustrated the sudden vulnerability of the U.N. mission amid spillover from Syria's civil war. It sent a worrisome signal to Israel, which fears lawlessness along the shared frontier if Syrian President Bashar Assad is ousted.

Earlier, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters that the Filipinos are being held in the basements of four or five houses in Jamlah.

The peacekeepers are apparently safe, he said, but the village "is subjected to intense shelling by the Syrian armed forces."

"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.

"If that were to happen, as we all hope," Ladsous said, "we would strongly expect that there not be retaliatory action by the Syrian armed forces over the village and its civilian population after our people have left."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said late Friday that a media person with the group holding the peacekeepers reported that the rebels would release the captives if there is a cease-fire and a halt in shelling of the area between 10 a.m. and noon local time Saturday.

The Observatory, a British-based group that relies on a network of contacts in Syria, said teams from the Red Cross and the U.N. were expected to reach the area Saturday morning.

The peacekeepers' four-vehicle convoy was intercepted on the outskirts of Jamlah on Wednesday by rebels from a group calling itself the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades.

Rebels said 10 people have died in regime shelling of Jamlah and nearby villages in recent days. Fighting continued Thursday, according to activists.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned rebel forces anew Friday for holding the U.N. peacekeepers but also blamed President Bashar Assad's regime for attacking the area.

"We have the regime shelling this rebel-held position, further endangering the peacekeepers and making it impossible for U.N. negotiators to get in there and try to resolve" the situation, she told reporters in Washington.

Nuland said the U.S. is in contact with Syria's opposition leaders and telling them "that this is not good for them, it's not good for their reputation and that they need to immediately release these people."

Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari denied that government forces were shelling Jamlah, but he said they were involved in military activity in the suburbs "where the armed groups are concentrated."

He said Syria has three goals: To ensure the safe release of the peacekeepers; guarantee the safety of the inhabitants of Jamlah and other villages; and "get these armed groups, terrorists, out of there." He said Syrian soldiers are willing to risk their lives to see the safe release of the peacekeepers.

The capture of the peacekeepers came a week after the announcement that a member of their mission is missing.

Ladsous said that in light of the volatile situation, the United Nations has vacated two positions in the area that were particularly exposed to gunfire.

"In a wider sense, of course we are looking very closely at the 'modus operendi' of the mission in the situation it is facing," he said.

The U.N. monitoring mission, known as UNDOF, was set up in 1974, seven years after Israel captured the Golan and a year after it managed to push back Syrian troops trying to recapture the territory in another regional war.

For nearly four decades, the U.N. monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria.

But in recent months, Syrian mortars overshooting their target have repeatedly hit the Israeli-controlled Golan. In Israel's most direct involvement so far, Israeli warplanes struck inside Syria in January, according to U.S. officials who said the target was a convoy carrying anti-aircraft weapons bound for Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia allied with Assad and Iran.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said "the mission in the Golan needs to review its security arrangements and it has been doing that."

He said the mission has been looking at different scenarios and arrangements on how to operate "in these new rather difficult and challenging circumstances."

One change that has already been made is the elimination of night patrols, Nesirky said.

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Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard in Beirut, Lebanon, and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.

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