Syrian rebels capture U.N. troops, negotiations underway

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U.N. officials said negotiations were under way Thursday with Syrian rebels who seized 21 UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights ceasefire zone between Syria and Israel, as rebels took total control of the key northern city of Raqqa.

Syrian rebels on Wednesday abducted the peacekeepers, who are from the Philippines, diplomats said, as the frontiers of their war against President Bashar al-Assad spread further.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for their "immediate" release and demanded the Syrian government and rebels respect their "freedom of movement and security.”

The U.N. said it was trying to negotiate the release of the soldiers, while a rebel spokesman said the troops would be held until Assad's forces pull back from a Golan village.

Officials in Manila urged the troops, who are part of a 300-strong Filipino peacekeeping unit, to be released immediately.

Early Thursday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the U.N. commander on the ground told him that negotiations were progressing. He said he was told "by tomorrow, they expect all of these 21 to be released."

Philippine armed forces spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos told AFP the rebels were treating the hostages well.

"They are being treated as guests, not as hostiles," Burgos said, adding: "We have high hopes that they are going to be released soon."

Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who read the Security Council statement on the situation, said the rebels have made demands directed at the Syrian government, but gave no details.

The United Nations has reported a growing number of incidents in the Golan over the past year. It has sent extra armored vehicles and communications equipment to reinforce security for the mission.

The Britain-based watchdog Syrian Observatory for Human Rights distributed two amateur videos with statements by the rebel Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade claiming the capture.

A man identified as brigade spokesman Abu Kaid al-Faleh said the peacekeepers would not be freed until Syrian regime forces pull out of the area.

"If they do not withdraw, these men [U.N. troops] will be treated as prisoners," he said, accusing the U.N. Disengagement Force (UNDOF) – which monitors a 1974 ceasefire deal between Syria and Israel – of working with the army to try to suppress the insurgency.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters after briefing the Security Council that negotiations are underway "and the matter is mobilizing all our teams."

On the ground, the northern city of Raqqa came under total rebel control on Wednesday, two days into battles with troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

"Raqqa city is now out of the army's control, after military intelligence troops surrendered to rebels following fierce clashes that raged for two days," Syrian Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

"It is the first provincial capital out of regime control."

In Cairo, the Arab League called for the opposition National Coalition "to form an executive body to take up Syria's seat" and attend its next summit, in Doha on March 26-27.

Russia said its point man on Syria would meet his US counterpart and U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in London on Thursday.

Moscow is upset with a U.S. decision to also step up non-military support for the rebels, and opposes calls for Assad to quit before talks between the regime and opposition.