One condition for Pinoys' release
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Rebels will free the 21 Filipino troops seized in the Golan Heights under one condition, Syria's opposition leader said, adding that the so-called revolutionaries detained these United Nations (UN) peacekeepers for their own safety.
“The revolutionaries are completely ready to turn in the peacekeepers to the United Nations under one condition – that the Red Cross should come and pick them up, and also the Red Cross should evacuate the injured, innocent civilians,” said Syrian opposition coalition president Moaz al-Khatib in an exclusive CNN interview on Thursday, March 7.
Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Raul Hernandez said they expected the peacekeepers' release on Friday morning, March 8. "This did not happen," Hernandez said in Filipino.
He said the DFA received unverified information that rebels want "space," requiring rescuers to move back 20 kilometers away from the village of Al Jamla. This was the place where the rebels seized the peacekeepers.
"That is the main demand of the rebel group," Hernandez told AFP, adding he did not know of any other conditions. He also said the Philippine government is "trying to intensify" negotiations.
Speaking to CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Al-Khatib meanwhile defended the abduction.
Al-Khatib noted that 150 civilians “suffered injuries under the savage, barbaric bombardment" – which also posed a threat to Filipino peacekeepers.
He claimed the rebels seized the Filipinos for their safety. “What our troops did was keep them out of harm's way, and they are now completely safe and sound,” Al-Khatib said.
The Filipino peacekeepers – 18 soldiers and 3 officers – belong to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights. The Philippines has 333 police and military personnel there.
In two videos earlier released by the UN, a rebel group said they will only free the peacekeepers if the Syrian government pulls out its forces.
"We call on them to withdraw all their troops to their bases. If they do not withdraw, these men (UN troops) will be treated as prisoners," said a spokesman for the Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade, Abu Kaid al-Faleh.
In a video clip posted Thursday, one of the detained peacekeepers said: “We are here, safe in this place.” (Watch the 43-second video below.)
The DFA said the rebels treat the peacekeepers “as visitors and guests.” But Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario described their “apprehension and illegal detention” as “gross violations of international law.”
President Benigno Aquino III said he received information the troops could be released by Thursday afternoon.
The abduction, however, poses long-term consequences. On Thursday, Israel said the UN peacekeeping force could completely pull out from the Golan Heights after the incident.
Israel fears that the departure of UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) troops could leave a vacuum in the ceasefire zone between Syria and the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan Heights, leaving it open to infiltration by hardline militant groups.
Since 1974, the UNDOF has been monitoring the Syrian side of the armistice line with a force of 1,200 troops, although its number has recently dropped to 1,000. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com