A convoy of U.N. vehicles sent to pick up 21 peacekeepers held by Syrian rebels in the southern village of Jamla pulled out when the army shelled the area, a watchdog said Friday.
“When the U.N. vehicles entered into Jamla, the Syrian army shelled a nearby village. The U.N. cars then withdraw from Jamla,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman, who said earlier that the group was willing to hand over their captives.
Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the “Martyrs of Yarmouk” brigade that captured the Filipino peacekeepers on Wednesday, said three Syrian army tanks and two military cars had pulled back from around Jamla but President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were still deployed around it and bombarding the region.
The men are part of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force(UNDOF), which has been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights since 1974.
Their capture just a mile (1.6 km) from Israeli-held lines is further evidence of how Syria’s conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over into neighboring countries.
In several videos released on Thursday, the peacekeepers said they were being treated well in the village of Jamla by civilians and rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
The United Nations said the captives had been detained by around 30 rebel fighters, but Taseel said the men were “guests” not hostages, and were being held for their own safety.
However, he said they would only be released once Assad’s forces retreated from around Jamla and halted bombing there.
In New York, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said Jamla was under intense bombardment from army forces, though he did not specify whether he was referring to the village or areas surrounding Jamla.
Ladsous also said he hoped a possible ceasefire would lead to the freeing of the peacekeepers, who have been held by rebels since Wednesday.
The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force has been tasked since 1974 with ensuring a ceasefire between Israel and Syria is respected in the Golan Heights, large parts of which are occupied by the Jewish state.