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Philippines says Syria rebels firm on hostage demands

An armoured UN vehicle crosses the Quneitra checkpoint between Israel and Syria, on March 8, 2013
An armoured UN vehicle crosses the Quneitra checkpoint between Israel and Syria, on March 8, 2013. UN efforts to secure the release of 21 peacekeepers abducted in the Golan dragged on into a third day as Manila said rebels holding the Filipinos were stick

UN efforts to secure the release of 21 peacekeepers abducted in the Golan dragged on into a third day on Friday, as Manila said rebels holding the Filipinos were sticking to their demand Syrian troops leave the area.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous was to brief the Security Council on the abduction later Friday as concern mounted about its implications for the future of the four-decade-old UN force patrolling the sensitive armistice line between Israel and Syria.

The refusal by the Syrian rebels to compromise had dampened hopes of a swift release and forced Manila to step up its negotiation efforts, Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said.

The 21 Filipinos, members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) monitoring the armistice between Syria and Israel that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, were abducted by the rebels on Wednesday just one and a half kilometres (a mile) to the Syrian side of the ceasefire line.

The rebels are demanding that Syrian troops move 20 kilometres (12 miles) back from Jamla, an area at the southern end of the armistice zone, Hernandez said.

"The demand of the rebels for the repositioning of Syrian forces in the area of Jamla is still outstanding so this is still being worked out," he said on ABS-CBN television.

UN peacekeepers monitor the Syrian side of the border from an Israeli army post in the Golan Heights, on July 24, 2012
UN peacekeepers monitor the Syrian side of the border from an Israeli army post in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, on July 24, 2012.

The Philippine government had previously received information that raised hopes the 21 would be released on Friday morning, Philippine time, and the government now did not know if or when they would be freed, Hernandez said.

"We are trying to intensify our negotiations with the rebel groups," he said adding that the hostages were nonetheless being treated well.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels had added a fresh demand.

"They are now demanding a new condition -- that the International Committee of the Red Cross guarantees the safe exit from the strife-torn area of Jamla of civilians," the Britain-based watchdog's director, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.

In Manila, the brother of one of hostages issued a televised appeal for the peacekeepers' release.

Xy-son Meneses said that he was concerned for his brother, Captain Xy-rus Meneses, who appeared in an Internet video with the other captured Filipinos shortly after their abduction.

"They are not there to cause trouble but to help maintain peace in Syria so I ask if they can release them," he said.

Concern has been mounting that the Filipinos' seizure might prompt more governments to withdraw troops from the already depleted UN mission.

A UN peacekeeper uses his binoculars on an observation tower in the Golan Heights, on March 8, 2013
A UN peacekeeper uses his binoculars on an observation tower in the demilitarized United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) zone inside the Golan Heights, on March 8, 2013.

Israeli officials warned that any further reduction in its strength risked creating a security vacuum in the no-man's land between the two sides on the strategic Golan Heights, which it seized in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The Israeli army revealed that it helped eight UN peacekeepers redeploy through Israeli-held territory overnight from an isolated post in the area where the hostages are being held.

"Eight UNDOF soldiers were evacuated from a post located within the demilitarised zone in the Syrian Golan Heights," the spokeswoman told AFP, adding that Israeli troops escorted them north to another UN base.

The rebel activity so close to the armistice line, coming after violent incidents on the Iraqi, Lebanese and Turkish borders, has stoked fears of a spillover of the two-year-old conflict as it degenerates into a protracted civil war.

World powers remain at loggerheads over the way forward, with Western governments firm in their demand for President Bashar al-Assad to quit, and China and Russia equally firm in their opposition to any imposed regime change.

"You know that we are not in the regime-change game," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated on Friday. "We are against interference in domestic conflicts," he told the BBC.

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