BEIRUT: Rebels holding 21 U.N. peacekeepers near the Golan Heights in southern Syria say government forces must stop their bombardment and leave the area before their “guests” can be freed, a rebel activist said.
“They will be passed to safe hands when possible – because the area is surrounded and the Assad regime is bombarding it,” said Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades which detained the Filipino peacekeepers.
Several videos were released of the peacekeepers Thursday in which they said they were being treated well by civilians and rebels battling President Bashar Assad, but 24 hours after their capture in the southern village of Jamla there was no indication when they might leave.
“It’s not just a question of their safety only but the safety of the people in the area,” Taseel said, adding that the U.N. peacekeepers monitoring a cease-fire line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights had a responsibility to keep heavy weapons out of the area.
Israel says it will not “stand idle” if violence spreads to the Golan, which it captured in the 1967 war, though a senior Defense Ministry official voiced confidence Thursday that the United Nations could secure the peacekeepers’ release, signaling that Israel would not intervene.
Wednesday’s detention of the peacekeepers by around 30 gunmen will also reinforce Western concerns that any weapons supplied to rebels fighting to overthrow Assad could end up being turned against Western interests.
Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch said rebels fighting alongside the Martyrs of Yarmouk had been seen in other videos carrying a grenade launcher that appears to be Croatian. Media reports last month quoted U.S. officials saying Saudi Arabia was sending Croatian arms to Syrian rebels.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino told reporters the peacekeepers were being well treated and that the United Nations was in touch with the rebels to ensure their safety. “By tomorrow they expect all of these 21 to be released,” he said, adding their release might occur as early as Thursday.
Syrian troops battled rebel fighters near the Golan Heights Thursday, in the southern Syrian province of Deraa, according to Rami Abdel-Rahman, the director of a Britain-based activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. He said the fighting was concentrated on the outskirts of Jamlah, about a kilometer from Israeli-controlled territory.
In a statement Thursday, the Syrian National Coalition, a Western-backed opposition group, said its representatives were in contact with rebels in the Jamlah area “to let the peacekeepers go.” The statement denied that seizing the peacekeepers amounted to kidnapping, saying the peacekeepers were taken in a “preventive security measure.”
Rebel groups tend to operate independently, despite attempts in December to form a unified military command, and it’s not clear whether the local rebels near the Golan will heed calls from leaders based abroad. Rebel fighters tend to see the opposition figures in exile as out of touch. Senior SNC member Khaled Saleh told the AP that leaders of the group would meet in Istanbul next week to choose an executive committee that will fill Syria’s seat at the Arab League. The League suspended the Syrian government’s membership in late 2011.
The opposition wants to create a provisional government to administer rebel-held areas in Syria and to show it can fill a power vacuum left by collapsing state institutions, putting structures in place to curb chaos in a post-Assad era.
The Istanbul meeting on March 12 and 13 was called after former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, the highest-ranking civilian defector from Assad’s government, withdrew his candidacy, several coalition members said.
Hijab had run into opposition from Islamists and liberals in the coalition over his past ties with Syria’s ruling hierarchy.
“The field of candidates has been expanding since Hijab withdrew,” said one coalition member who asked not to be identified.
Coalition sources said the Syrian National Council, a large Muslim Brotherhood-influenced bloc within the 71-member coalition, had chosen three candidates for prime minister.
They are Salem al-Muslet, a tribal figure from northeastern Syria who worked at think tanks in the Gulf; Osama al-Qadi, a U.S.-educated economist who heads an opposition taskforce drawing up plans for post-conflict economic recovery; and veteran opposition campaigner Burhan Ghalioun, a professor from Homs and previous president of the Syrian National Council.
Asaad Mustafa, a former agriculture minister during the 30-year rule of Assad’s father, the late President Hafez Assad, is also in the running, the sources said.
Muslet and Ghalioun, however, are members of the coalition, whose rules state that only non-members can join the provisional government. A previous attempt to amend these rules failed when some coalition members keen to preserve the principle of separation of powers threatened to resign, the sources said.
Qadi, the economist, may become front-runner for prime minister if the Syrian National Council and its allies fail to find the two-thirds majority needed to change the coalition’s rules to allow Muslet and Ghalioun to run.
Violence across Syria Thursday killed 123 people, the Observatory said, adding that fighter jets pounded the northeastern city of Raqqa in a bid to recapture it after it was seized by rebels earlier in the week.