4 Filipino peacekeepers seized by Syrian rebels

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - Syrian rebels said they seized four Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights on Tuesday, the second time in two months that UN troops have been abducted in the tense ceasefire zone between Syria and Israel.

The four were "detained today by an unidentified armed group while they were patrolling" near Al Jamlah in the zone between Israel and Syria, said a UN peacekeeping spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero.

"The four are from the Philippine battalion. Efforts are underway to secure their release."

The Philippines condemned in the strongest possible terms the abduction of the four Filipino peacekeepers.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the Philippines underscores that the apprehension and illegal detention of peacekeepers are gross violations of international law.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the attack. In March, 21 Filipino peacekeepers were seized for four days in the same area by Syrian rebels.

UN officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there has been mounting military activity by Syrian government and opposition forces in recent days in the zone patrolled by the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

In a Facebook posting, the "Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade" rebel group said they had taken the four peacekeepers for their own safety because of fierce fighting in the area. The rebel group also staged the abduction in March.

The Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade said it staged "an operation to secure and protect United Nations forces." The posting showed a photograph of four men in blue flak jackets, with three of them marked "UN" and "Philippines."

Ban "strongly condemns the detention of four UNDOF peacekeepers by armed elements" and "calls for their immediate release," said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.

Despite the two cases of abduction in Golan Heights, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said it has no plan to withdraw its troops in the conflict-torn area contested by Syria and Israel.

Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan, AFP spokesman, said the deployment of regular Filipino peacekeeping forces is an international commitment that could not just be thrown away with cases of abduction and any untoward incident. (With reports from Roy C. Mabasa and Aaron B. Recuenco)

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