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Philippines urges Syrian rebels to release troops

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The Philippines called Thursday for the immediate release of 21 Filipino UN peacekeepers taken hostage by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights ceasefire zone.

The soldiers, part of a 300-strong Filipino peacekeeping unit, were detained at a rebel observation point on Wednesday by rebels who said the troops would be held until Syrian regime forces pulled back from a Golan village.

"The Philippine government is calling for the immediate release of 21 Filipino peacekeepers who are part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights," the foreign affairs department said.

In a statement, the department said that all the hostages were reported to be unharmed and negotiations were under way to secure their safe release.

Philippine armed forces spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos told AFP the rebels were treating the hostages well, adding: "They are being treated as guests, not as hostiles (enemy force).

"We have high hopes that they are going to be released soon."

Burgos did not did explain the basis for his optimism, other than pointing out negotiations had started.

However, a rebel spokesman said the troops would be held until forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pulled back from the village, also accusing the UN peacekeepers of favouring Israel.

A UN Disengagement Force has been monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974.

The United Nations has reported a growing number of incidents in the Golan over the past year. It has sent extra armoured vehicles and communications equipment to reinforce security for the mission.

Up to the end of February there were about 1,000 troops from Austria, Croatia, India and the Philippines operating in the ceasefire force.

But Croatia announced last week it was withdrawing its 100 troops from UNDOF because it feared for the soldiers' safety. Canada and Japan have also withdrawn their small contingents in recent months because of security fears.

Burgos said no decision had been made on whether to pull the rest of the Filipino peacekeeping unit out of the Golan Heights.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130306/philippines-urges-syrian-rebels-release-troops