Rebels in Syria seeking the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime have kidnapped four UN peacekeepers, the second such a kidnapping has occurred since March. Again the observers are Filipnos attached to the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which for the last four decades has been tasked with monitoring the border between Israel and Syria.
The Yarmouk Martyrs rebels said they “carried out an operation to secure and protect elements of the United Nations operating in the Yarmouk Valley … during clashes and heavy shelling in the region”. They said the heavy presence of Assad’s forces posed a danger to the peacekeepers, as well as “criminal elements” in the area.
The last abduction saw opposition forces demanding the withdrawal of regime forces in exchange for the 21 observers’ release. The peacekeepers were nonetheless released after three days under intense international pressure.
Concerns over the security of UNDOF peacekeepers have been steadily deepening since last December, when the French ambassador to the U.N. explicitly warned that the observer force was in danger of collapse. A growing power vacuum near the Israeli-Syrian border – the result of Syrian redeployments and withdrawals from UNDOF – has allowed Al Qaeda-linked jihadists to operate with relative freedom.
Israel has in turn emphasized that it will act to block such groups from seizing advanced Syrian weaponry.
Israel has been at a state alert of along its border with Syria since a series of weekend airstrikes reportedly conducted by the Jewish state targeted Iranian and Hezbollah infrastructure inside Syria. Jerusalem has made a concerted effort to dampen tensions since the strikes.
Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, the head of IDF’s Northern Command, sought Monday to play down the possibility of escalation:
“There are no winds of war,” Major-General Yair Golan said on Monday as he took part in an annual fun run for the Golani Brigade, one of Israel’s four main infantry brigades. “There is no need to get into hysterics, everything is calm, the residents of the north can sleep in peace,” he said… The IDF reopened Israel’s northern airspace for civilian flights after air traffic was brought to a standstill for a half a day following Sunday’s airstrikes on Syria.
[Photo: rOOmUSh / Flickr]