Syrian rebels fail to free peacekeepers: Philippine government

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The Philippine government said Syrian rebels failed to release 21 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers Friday and stuck to their demands for repositioning of Syrian government forces before any handover.

The spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, Raul Hernandez, said the rebels had been expected to free the peacekeepers early Friday.

“I don’t know exactly know what happened, why the expected release did not happen, but the demand is still there” for the Syrian forces to pull back, he told reporters in Manila.

The 21 peacekeepers were seized Wednesday near the Syrian village of Jamlah, just a kilometer from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, where the U.N. force has patrolled a cease-fire line between Israel and Syria for nearly four decades.

The Philippines said Friday that the rebels are demanding government forces stop their bombardment and leave the area before their “guests” can be freed.

The rebels want the Syrian troops to move 20 kilometers back from Jamla, an area in the Golan’s ceasefire zone, before they will free the Filipinos, he said.

“That is the main demand of the rebel group,” Hernandez told AFP, adding he did not know of any other conditions.

The Philippine government had previously received information that raised hopes the 21 would be released on Friday morning, Philippine time, and the government now did not know if or when they would be freed, Hernandez said.

“We are trying to intensify our negotiations with the rebel groups,” he said.

However he said the Filipino peacekeepers were still being treated well.

“[They are] being treated as guests and are unharmed,” Hernandez said.

The peacekeepers echoed this sentiment in videos posted online.

“To our family, we hope to see you soon and we are OK here,” said a peacekeeper shown in one video. He was one of three troops dressed in camouflage and blue bullet-proof vests emblazoned with the words U.N. and Philippines.

A rebel spokesman seemed to suggest the hostages were also serving as human shields. If the U.N. troops are released and leave the area, the regime could kill "as many as 1,000 people," said the spokesman, who spoke via Skype and did not give his name for fear of reprisals.

The 21 Filipino troops, members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) observing a 1974 ceasefire between Syria and Israel, were abducted on Wednesday by the rebels.

A U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, previously said the UNDOF mission was “negotiating with the armed group and the Syrian authorities” to obtain a release.

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