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Syria rebels detain 43 U.N. peacekeepers in Golan

Smoke rises following an explosion in Syria's Quneitra province as Syrian rebels clashed with President Bashar Assad’s forces, seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

UNITED NATIONS: Syrian rebel groups detained 43 U.N. peacekeepers during fighting in Syria early Thursday and another 81 peacekeepers remain trapped, the United Nations said.

The peacekeepers were detained on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights during a “period of increased fighting between armed elements and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces,” the office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.

It said another 81 peacekeepers are “currently being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ruwayhina and Burayqa,” near the Qunaitra border crossing.

The statement did not specify which armed group is holding the peacekeepers but the development came one day after a coalition of half a dozen insurgent groups, including the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, seized the Qunaitra border crossing on the Golan Heights after fierce clashes with regime troops.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based, anti-regime group of activists, said 16 rebels and jihadists were killed in the clashes; anti-regime activists posted video purporting to show the insurgents at the crossing point after they took control of it.

Syrian warplanes Thursday targeted the village of Jubah near the Qunaitra crossing point, while clashes took place pitting regime troops and paramilitaries against the rebels and jihadists in several nearby areas, with both sides using artillery against each other.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the 43 detained peacekeepers are from Fiji and are thought to be in the southern part of the area of separation between Syria and Israel. The 81 troops from the Philippines had their movements restricted.

“The situation is extremely fluid. Obviously, we are very concerned.”

“We are dealing with nonstate armed actors,” he said. “The command and control of these groups is unclear. We’re not in a position to confirm who is holding whom. Some groups self-identified as being affiliated with Nusra, however, we are unable to confirm it.”

The peacekeepers are part of UNDOF, which has been monitoring a 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel after their 1973 war.

A Security Council statement condemning the detention noted that UNDOF peacekeepers who were detained by armed groups in March and May were later safely released. The development came as regime warplanes struck a headquarters of ISIS in the town of Muhasan in Deir al-Zor province in the east.

The Observatory said the strike killed “most” of a group of religious and military leaders from ISIS who were gathered for a meeting.

Meanwhile, ISIS has summarily executed more than 160 regime troops seized in recent fighting, posting pictures of terrified young conscripts stripped down to their underwear before meeting their deaths in the arid countryside.

The images of the slayings that emerged Thursday were the latest massacre attributed to the extremist group. Most of the dozens killed over the past 24 hours were rounded up Wednesday near the Tabqa air base, three days after ISIS fighters seized the facility.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government, which has been tight-lipped on the massive death toll incurred by its soldiers at the hands of ISIS fighters in the past two months, but the images were relayed on pro-regime social media and informal media outlets.

U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking late Thursday, said his administration was still working on a plan for confronting ISIS in Syria, and noted that a “regional strategy with Sunni partners” would be required. He said that Secretary of State John Kerry would be traveling to the region to consult with officials on the plan. In response to a question, Obama downplayed any role for Syrian President Bashar Assad in such an effort, stressing that the U.S. did not “have to choose” between Assad and ISIS.

In Paris, French President Francois Hollande also ruled out such an international partnership with Assad, saying any alliance with him would play into the militants’ hands.

In a wide-ranging speech to international ambassadors, Hollande said France would call an international conference to address the threat of ISIS militants and said a broad alliance was needed. He said: “But I want to make sure things are clear: Bashar Assad cannot be a partner in the fight against terrorism. He is a known ally of the jihadists. You cannot choose between two barbarities, because they feed on each other.”

In Damascus, regime warplanes pounded the eastern district of Jobar with 18 airstrikes, the Observatory said.

Separately, one of the groups that was involved in the Qunaitra battles, the Syria Rebel Front, saw its commander for southern Syria assassinated by an “independent media activist” in rural Deraa due to a “personal dispute,” multiple sources said.

Capt. Qais Qataineh, one of the first officers to defect from the army in the summer of 2011, died of his wounds in a hospital in Ramtha, Jordan. Qataineh was also the head of the Omari Brigade, which has been active in Deraa province throughout the war.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 29, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

Syrian rebel groups detained 43 U.N. peacekeepers during fighting in Syria early Thursday and another 81 peacekeepers remain trapped, the United Nations said.

The statement did not specify which armed group is holding the peacekeepers but the development came one day after a coalition of half a dozen insurgent groups, including the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, seized the Qunaitra border crossing on the Golan Heights after fierce clashes with regime troops.

Syrian warplanes Thursday targeted the village of Jubah near the Qunaitra crossing point, while clashes took place pitting regime troops and paramilitaries against the rebels and jihadists in several nearby areas, with both sides using artillery against each other.

The peacekeepers are part of UNDOF, which has been monitoring a 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel after their 1973 war.

Separately, one of the groups that was involved in the Qunaitra battles, the Syria Rebel Front, saw its commander for southern Syria assassinated by an "independent media activist" in rural Deraa due to a "personal dispute," multiple sources said.

Qataineh was also the head of the Omari Brigade, which has been active in Deraa province throughout the war.


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