Four U.N. observers detained in Golan Heights

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BEIRUT -- Syrian rebels kidnapped four United Nations peacekeepers Tuesday along the fraught cease-fire line between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, in a replay of a similar incident in March.

The U.N. peacekeeping department in New York said four Filipino peacekeepers serving in the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force were captured by "an unidentified armed group" while patrolling near the town of Jamlah. "All efforts are currently underway to secure their release," said Kieran Dwyer, a spokesman for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

In a statement posted on Facebook, the rebel Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade announced that it seized the peacekeepers to "secure and protect" them from heavy shelling by Syrian government forces. The statement was accompanied by a photograph of the peacekeepers sitting barefoot on a carpet and wearing light-blue U.N. armored vests, three of which were marked "Philippines," over their camouflage fatigues.

The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade abducted 21 Filipino peacekeepers in the same area in March. The group initially claimed that it was holding those U.N. observers as leverage to compel the Syrian government to withdraw its forces from Jamlah, where the troops had clashed with rebels. But after intensive negotiations between the United Nations and the rebels, the group later released the peacekeepers along the Jordanian border, saying it had detained them for their own safety.

The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade said the four observers were taken Tuesday after government forces captured a checkpoint near the area they were patrolling, "which endangered their lives, pushing us to intervene."

The statement also described "heavy clashes and heavy shelling" in the area, suggesting that the rebels may have seized the peacekeepers in part to protect themselves. It said the peacekeepers were endangered not only by "members of the regime army," but by "some criminal groups" as well.

In New York, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the detention and called for the peacekeepers' immediate release. He urged all parties to respect the "freedom of movement and safety and security" of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force.

Unarmed observer force members have patrolled the no-man's land between Syria and Israel since 1974, monitoring a cease-fire between the two countries following the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Israel occupied most of the Syrian Golan Heights during the Six-Day War in 1967.

Tuesday's abduction occurred in a rugged no man's land dotted with small Syrian villages, in a triangle that borders Syria, Jordan and the Golan Heights. There, shepherds still move flocks down deep canyons and dry river beds. The villages are quiet, and few vehicle appear on the road. Some houses appear damaged by shelling.

From an Israeli military observation post, one can see an old Ottoman-era bridge, a Jordanian military and customs depot and, farther in the distance, a string of small villages that have changed hands repeatedly in the last year between Syrian army troops and rebel combatants.

Israeli military commanders call the zone an "ungoverned area," and the Israel Defense Forces have moved tanks, intelligence and combat units to their side of the contested boundary in the Golan Heights.

"This area is no longer stable," Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch said Thursday during a tour of the area with journalists. "Many players are involved now."

Gen. Hirsch pointed to a U.N. post in the hazy distance that was attacked by Syrian artillery a few months ago. "Radicals are building their future infrastructure right here. Places like this are heaven for terrorists."

Tensions have soared recently between Israel and Syria following a series of Israeli airstrikes against military targets in Damascus, but there was no immediate indication that the abduction was related to those attacks. On Monday, two small rockets from Syria were lobbed across the boundary into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The Israeli military quickly played down the incident as "accidental spillover" from Syria's raging civil war.

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