BEIRUT — New video Thursday of U.N. peacekeepers held captive by Syrian rebels illustrates the sudden vulnerability of a U.N. force that had patrolled a cease-fire line between Israel and Syria without incident for nearly four decades.
The abduction of the Filipino troops — soft targets in Syria’s civil war — also sent a worrisome signal to Israel about the lawlessness it fears along the shared frontier if Syrian President Bashar Assad is ousted.
The 21 peacekeepers were seized Wednesday near the Syrian village of Jamlah, just a mile from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, a plateau Israel captured from Syria in 1967.
Negotiations were continuing Thursday for the release of the men, who said in videos posted online that they were being treated well.
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“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 bulletproof vests emblazoned with the words U.N. and Philippines.
However, 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 peacekeepers’ abduction highlights the growing risks to U.N. staff in Syria’s escalating conflict.
Fighting has spread across the country, claiming more than 70,000 lives and displacing nearly
4 million of Syria’s 22 million people. There is no sign of a breakthrough for either side, though rebels have scored some recent gains on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena.
U.N. diplomats and officials said Thursday that the capture of the peacekeepers will almost certainly lead to a re-examination of security for the U.N. force and its patrols in the field.
The U.N. monitoring mission, known as UNDOF, was set up in 1974, seven years after Israel captured the Golan and a year after it managed to push back Syrian troops trying to recapture the territory in another regional war.
For nearly four decades, the U.N. monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria, making it one of the most successful U.N. missions in the world, said Timor Goksel, a Beirut-based former senior U.N. official in the region.
Goksel, who works for the Al-Monitor news website, said the observers are “soft targets” in Syria’s increasingly brutal civil war. Up to now they were “never challenged by anybody in Syria,” he added.
The monitors’ success may have been linked to a decision by Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, to comply with the armistice deal, including limits on military hardware allowed near the cease-fire line.
Moshe Maoz, an Israeli expert on Syria, said the U.N. mission’s success was largely due to the Assads’ decision to abide by the truce.
“When you are dealing with an army that follows orders, it is one thing,” Maoz said. “Now you have different groups. They do not recognize international law and have no respect for any law or international morals. They are terrorist groups that know no bounds.”
An Israeli official said that if UNDOF were to halt operations, it would be a “bad thing for peace.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the diplomatically sensitive issue with the media.
The U.N. peacekeepers’ four-vehicle convoy was intercepted Wednesday by rebels from a group calling itself the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades. The convoy was stopped on the outskirts of Jamlah, about a mile from the armistice line.
Immediately after their seizure, one of the rebels said the U.N. troops would be held until regime forces leave Jamlah.
On Thursday, however, a spokesman for the captors expressed concern about more regime attacks on the area if the hostages are freed, suggesting release was not imminent.
A member of Syria’s political opposition in exile, Khaled Saleh, said the rebels would deliver the U.N. troops to safety in Jordan as soon as the regime halts airstrikes in the area and a transfer is deemed safe.
The U.N. Security Council, which has demanded the peacekeepers’ immediate and unconditional release, scheduled a closed meeting Friday with U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous.
“As far as we know they are safe,” Ladsous told a group of reporters Thursday. “But of course we demand the immediate freedom and the ability for UNDOF to carry out its mandate in the area of the Golan.”