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U.N. hopes to retrieve peacekeepers from Syrian rebels on Saturday

A Filipino United Nations peacekeepers enters a car at the Kuneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, close to the ceasefire line be
A Filipino United Nations peacekeepers enters a car at the Kuneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, close to the ceasefire line be

By Dominic Evans and Michelle Nichols

BEIRUT/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations hopes to retrieve 21 peacekeepers from Syrian rebels on Saturday during a two-hour truce agreed to by Syrian troops and opposition groups after a release bid was abandoned on Friday, the United Nations and an opposition group said.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said the Filipino peacekeepers were being held in the basements of four houses in the village of Jamla, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which was being subjected to intense shelling by Syrian troops.

The peacekeepers - part of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights since 1974 - were seized by the Martyrs of Yarmouk rebel brigade on Wednesday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said the warring parties in Syria were aiming for a ceasefire in the area between 10:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. (03:00 a.m. to 05:00 a.m. EST) so the peacekeepers could be released.

The United Nations said arrangements were made for the handover of the men on Friday, but "due to the late hour and the darkness, it was considered unsafe to continue the operation."

"Efforts will continue tomorrow," a U.N. peacekeeping department spokeswoman said in a statement.

Abu Essam Taseel, a rebel spokesman, said a convoy to collect the men had reached Nafea village, about a kilometer (half a mile) east of Jamla, but was unable to venture further because of intense Syrian army bombardment.

Syria's nearly two-year civil war has spilled across the Golan Heights ceasefire line and Syria's borders with Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, threatening to engulf the region. The conflict began as peaceful protests, but turned violent when President Bashar al-Assad ordered a crackdown on the demonstrations.

The U.N. peacekeepers were seized in Syria a mile from Israeli-held lines. The Martyrs of Yarmouk rebels had said they would handover the peacekeepers once government forces retreated from around Jamla and halted bombing there.

"(Jamla) is subject to intense shelling by the Syrian armed forces," Ladsous told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council on the situation.

He also warned that once the peacekeepers were released, "we would strongly expect that there would not be retaliatory action by the Syrian armed forces over the village and its civilian population."

Syrian U.N. ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told reporters that the army was targeting areas outside Jamla where he said the rebels were concentrated, not the village itself.

"We know for sure what we are doing and we know where the peacekeepers are," he said.

"The Syrian government forces are doing exactly what they have to do in order to bring back safely the peacekeepers, guarantee the safety and security of the inhabitants of these villages (and) get these armed group terrorists out of the area," Ja'afari said.

INCURSIONS IN DEMILITARIZED ZONE

Rebel spokesman Taseel said three army tanks and two military cars had pulled back from around Jamla but Assad's forces were still deployed around it and bombarding the region.

In several videos released on Thursday, the peacekeepers said they were being treated well by civilians and rebels.

The United Nations said the captives had been detained by about 30 rebel fighters, but Taseel said the men were "guests," not hostages, and were being held for their own safety.

Under an agreement brokered by the United States in 1974, Israel and Syria are allowed a limited number of tanks and troops within 20 km (13 miles) of the disengagement line.

Taseel said the Syrian military had exceeded those limits and that its warplanes were bombing opposition targets within 500 meters (yards) of the disengagement line - something he said the U.N. peacekeepers had a duty to prevent.

A U.N. report in December said both the Syrian army and rebels had entered the demilitarized area between Syrian and Israeli forces, and that Syrian army operations had "affected adversely" UNDOF operations.

Referring to incidents including shelling from Syrian territory last year, it said: "Recent incidents across the ceasefire line have shown the potential for escalation of tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic, and jeopardize the ceasefire between the two countries."

In January, Israel bombed an arms convoy in Syria that may have been destined for its Lebanese foe Hezbollah, diplomats and security sources said. Israel has said it will not "stand idle" if violence spreads to the Golan, which it captured in 1967.

The United Nations said in a statement that seven peacekeepers manning a position in the area of separation were withdrawn to the main UNDOF base on Friday "as a security precaution after armed opposition elements took over a nearby Syrian army post."

The measure is likely to pose further questions over the future of the peacekeeping force. Croatia announced last week it was pulling out its UNDOF soldiers as a precautionary step over concerns for their safety after media reports that Croatian arms were being sent to rebels.

(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Jon Hemming and Stacey Joyce)

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