BEIRUT: Intense Syrian army bombardment prevented a convoy of United Nations vehicles Friday from reaching and retrieving 21 U.N. peacekeepers seized by rebels near the Golan Heights two days ago, a rebel spokesman said.
Abu Essam Taseel said the convoy had reached the village of Nafea, about a kilometer east of Jamla where the Filipino peacekeepers were held Wednesday, but was unable to venture further because of the bombardment.
The United Nations had arranged for the release earlier this week but had to call off the handover due to what it determined were unsafe conditions, a U.N. peacekeeping spokeswoman said.
“Arrangements were made with all parties for the release of the 21 peacekeepers,” the spokeswoman said. “UNDOF dispatched a team to the location but due to the late hour and the darkness it was considered unsafe to continue the operation. Efforts will continue tomorrow [Saturday].”
Peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said he hoped a brief cease-fire could be reached between the rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad to allow the U.N. men to be taken to safety.
“Our 21 peacekeepers are detained in the village of Jamla. Apparently they are safe, they have been spread into four locations within that village, in the basements of various houses,” Ladsous said after briefing the Security Council.
“That particular village [Jamla] is subject to intense shelling by the Syrian armed forces.”
“As of now there is perhaps a hope ... there is the possibility that a cease-fire of a few hours can intervene which would allow for our people to be released,” Ladsous added.
Syria’s U.N. ambassador Bashar Jaafari told reporters that the army was targeting areas outside Jamla where he said the rebels were concentrated, not the village itself.
“We know for sure what we are doing and we know where the peacekeepers are,” he said. “The Syrian government forces are doing exactly what they have to do in order to bring back safely the peacekeepers, guarantee the safety and security of the inhabitants of these villages [and] get these armed terrorists out of the area.”
The Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, rebels who took the peacekeepers Wednesday, have said they would only be released once Assad’s forces retreated from around Jamla and halted bombing. Taseel said three army tanks and two military cars had pulled back from around Jamla but Assad’s forces were still deployed around it and bombarding the region.
Their capture just a mile from Israeli-held lines is further evidence of how Syria’s conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over into neighboring countries.
On the diplomatic front, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the BBC in an interview broadcast Friday that the Syrian leader was digging in and “is not going to leave.”
“We know this for sure, and all those who get in touch with him know that he is not bluffing,” Lavrov said. He added that Russia, a close Syria ally, would not pressure Assad to leave. “It’s not for me to decide, it’s not for anybody else to decide, except the Syrian people.”
Syria’s opposition has criticized the West for not helping arm rebel fighters even as Russia and Iran support the regime with weapons.
Earlier this week, Britain announced that it would provide armored vehicles and other equipment to the rebels, while stopping short of arming them.
Assad adviser Buthaina Shaaban said Britain’s decision would only prolong the fighting. She alleged that most of the rebels were linked to the Al-Qaeda terror network and hard-line Islamist groups. “Britain should not think that terror activities by such groups in Syria will not one day go back to haunt Europe or Britain,” said Shaaban who is in India for talks with Indian leaders to rally support for Assad.
Following Britain’s decision, dissident Syrian ex-premier Riad Hijab issued a new call for arming the rebels.
“Arming the Free Syrian Army is the only way of changing the situation on the ground and getting out of the hole the tyrant has dragged us into,” he said.
Hijab was speaking at a meeting of the Free National Gathering, an opposition grouping that he leads and which was founded in Amman in December with the stated intention of defending the interests of state employees sympathetic to the opposition and safeguarding state institutions when Assad falls.
On the ground, a Syrian official working in the office of the governor of Damascus was killed by a bomb planted in his car, an official television channel reported, blaming the attack on “terrorists.”
“Terrorists planted an explosive device in Asaad Mohanna’s car,” said Al-Ikhbariya television, using the regime’s term to refer to rebels fighting Assad’s forces. “He was in charge of running the office of the governor of Damascus.”
Al-Ikhbariya said the attack occurred in the heavily fortified northwest area of Damascus.