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Philippines: Syrian rebels fail to free peacekeepers

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    Philippine peacekeeping officers line up before departing to Golan Heights at the Villamor Air Base at a Manila suburb, in the Philippines in this Nov. 11, 2012 photo released by the Philippine Army. The Philippine government said Thursday that talks were under way for the release of 21 unarmed Filipino U.N. peacekeepers who were detained by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights in the increasingly volatile zone separating Israeli and Syrian troops.

MANILA » The Philippine government said Syrian rebels failed to release 21 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers Friday (Thursday in Hawaii) and stuck to their demands for repositioning of Syrian government forces before any handover.

The 21 peacekeepers were seized Wednesday near the Syrian village of Jamlah, just a kilometer (less than a mile) from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, where the U.N. force has patrolled a cease-fire line between Israel and Syria for nearly four decades.

The spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, Raul Hernandez, said the rebels had been expected to free the peacekeepers early Friday.

“I don’t know exactly know what happened, why the expected release did not happen, but the demand is still there” for the Syrian forces to pull back, he told reporters in Manila.

He said that the Philippine government continues to “work with all stakeholders for the expeditious release of our Filipino U.N. peacekeepers.”

The rebels demand that Syrian troops pull back from the area around Jamlah, the village near the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. U.N. peacekeepers have been monitoring the armistice line since 1974.

Last week, rebels from the Martyrs of the Yarmouk Brigades, the group that is holding the peacekeepers, overran several Syrian army checkpoints in the area, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head or the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

However, there are still regime positions nearby because of the strategic importance of the area. Rebels apparently fear that the regime will push to retake the territory if the peacekeepers are released, raising the possibility of a prolonged standoff.

The peacekeepers 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.

Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Beirut, Lebanon, contributed to this report.

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