Abduction illustrates UN vulnerability in Syria

BEIRUT (AP) — 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 under way Thursday for the release of the men, who said in videos posted online that they were being treated well.

“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 bullet-proof 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.

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