Syrian rebels seize 21 peacekeepers

They demand the U.S. and U.N. take a tougher stand on Assad

JERUSALEM — Syrian rebels on Wednesday took 21 U.N. peacekeepers hostage in the Golan Heights, demanding that the United Nations and the United States do more to force Syrian President Bashar Assad to withdraw his troops from a village in the area in return for the hostages' release.

"If no withdrawal is made within 24 hours we will treat them as prisoners," a video posted online by a group that identified itself as the Martyrs of Yarmouk said. The video showed U.N vehicles and an armored patrol car. At least two U.N. officials wearing blue helmets and flak jackets could be seen in the background.

It was the second incident this week in which rebel forces deliberately sought to internationalize their fight to topple Assad. On Monday, gunmen believed to be either members of the rebel Nusra Front or the related group al-Qaida in Iraq attacked an Iraqi military convoy deep inside Iraq as it was escorting a group of unarmed Syrian civilians and soldiers.

As many as 50 Syrians and a dozen Iraqi soldiers were killed in the attack, which Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on Tuesday called a massacre.

Wednesday's hostage taking involved 21 Filipino soldiers who were part of a U.N. observer force that patrols the no-man's land between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967.

In the video, the rebels said they would hold the U.N. workers until the Syrian army withdrew from the village of Jamiah, just a mile away from the Syria-Israel border.

The rebels accused the U.N. of collaborating with Assad's forces.

More then 1,000 U.N. peacekeepers patrol the narrow corridor between Israel and Syria. Earlier this month, Croatia withdrew its troops from the force, expressing concern that they might be targeted after news coverage linked Croatia to a weapons shipment bound for the rebels.

Israeli officials have in recent weeks said they were worried that rebel groups operating in southern Lebanon might stage cross-border attacks into Israel.

Militant Islamist groups, particularly the Nusra Front, which the United States said in December is an alias for al-Qaida in Iraq, have assumed an increasingly prominent role in recent rebel military advances.

Little is known about the Martyrs of Yarmouk group, but the name recalls a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood in Damascus that has been the scene of fierce fighting. Residents of Yarmouk have told McClatchy Newspapers that Nusra was leading the anti-Assad forces in that combat.

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