U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned on Tuesday the detention of four U.N. peacekeepers monitoring the ceasefire line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and called for their immediate release, his spokesman said, Reuters reported.
“The Secretary-General calls on all parties to respect UNDOF's (the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force) freedom of movement and safety and security,” Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters.
The four were patrolling near the al-Jamlah locality in the ceasefire zone between Israel and Syria where 21 Filipino peacekeepers were seized by Syrian rebels in March, said a U.N. peacekeeping spokeswoman, Josephine Guerrero.
“An unknown armed group” took the men, Guerrero told AFP. “Efforts are underway to secure their release.”
In a posting on their Facebook page, the “Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade” rebel group said they had taken the four peacekeepers for their own safety because of fierce fighting in the area.
“The leadership of the Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade announces... an operation to secure and protect United Nations forces in Wadi Yarmuk in the area between Syria and the occupied Golan Heights,” the group said.
The posting showed a photograph of four men in blue flak jackets, with three of them marked “U.N.” and “Philippines.”
The statement said shelling by regime troops and fighting in the area “seriously threatened the safety” of the peacekeepers and had prompted the fighters to “intervene and work to get them out.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog confirmed there was heavy fighting underway in the area.
The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been in the Golan Heights since 1974, has about 1,000 troops and civilian staff.
The 917 troops from Austria, India, the Philippines, Morocco and Moldova carry only very light arms.
The United Nations sent extra armored personnel carriers, ambulances and other security equipment to the force after the March 6-9 abduction.
The ceasefire line has seen increased hostilities from the two-year-old Syrian war, with shells from the Syrian side falling onto Israeli territory and the Israeli military firing back.
U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon said in a report in March that there had been “continued, often intense, clashes between the Syrian armed forces and armed members of the opposition” in the ceasefire zone.
UNDOF peacekeepers had also “observed and reported instances of continued transborder movements of unidentified individuals, some of them armed” between Lebanon and Syria in the northern part of the ceasefire zone,” the report added.
Israel, which is technically at war with Syria, has occupied 1,200 square kilometers of the Golan Heights, which it annexed in 1967 in a move never recognized by the international community.