U.N. starts talks to free peacekeepers

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NEW YORK -- United Nations and Arab League officials were reported to be negotiating Thursday with Syrian rebels who seized a group of U.N. troops on patrol in the disputed Golan Heights region between Syria and Israel, seeking to defuse an abrupt escalation of the Syrian conflict that enmeshed international peacekeepers for the first time.

Significantly, Israel signaled Thursday that it had no intention of becoming embroiled in the crisis.

There was no immediate indication when the 21 captives, all from the Philippines, who were seized Wednesday, might be freed, but authorities in Manila said the peacekeepers were being treated as "visitors and guests" and had not been harmed.

"The negotiations are ongoing," said Raul Hernandez, a spokesman for Philippines Foreign Ministry. "This is between the U.N. peacekeeping force and the group leader of this rebel force. We have been informed that they are unharmed and, for the time being, they are being treated as visitors and guests."

Rebel video on the Internet showed six Filipino soldiers in their camouflage uniform in a room with pale, heavy drapes.

With 1,011 troops, the U.N. observer force in the Golan is responsible for maintaining the calm between Israeli and Syrian troops at the demilitarized zone along Syria's Golan frontier, established after a cease-fire ended the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Israeli officials have expressed concern about the presence of Islamic extremist groups fighting the Syrian army close to the cease-fire line with Israel. In recent months, Israel has upgraded its troops and surveillance along its northern frontier and is constructing a new border fence.

Distancing Israel from events across the cease-fire line Thursday, Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official, said "we can rely on the U.N. to persuade" the insurgent fighters to release the captive troops. "Neither the rebels nor anyone else has an interest in clashing with the international community, which it needs for support," Mr. Gilad told Israel Radio, adding, "The international community will handle this."

The Philippine government said Thursday that it had been told by the United Nations that 21 of its peacekeepers were detained. Philippines President Benigno S. Aquino III said he believed the peacekeepers would be viewed by both sides in the Syrian conflict as a "benign presence, so we don't expect any further untoward incident to happen."

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