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Negotiations continue for release of U.N. peacekeepers in Syria

The U.N.'s top peacekeeper, Herve Ladous, said today that Syrian authorities are shelling the town where 21 Filipino peacekeepers continued to be held by anti-government insurgents.

Ladous said he remains confident that the blue helmets will be released, but he voiced concern that the Syrian government might retaliate against local villagers after the U.N. leaves.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is in touch with the rebels, announced that 8 U.N. vehicles had entered the town, indicating a pull out may be imminent. But the rebels have previously insisted that Syrian forces withdraw from the town before the peacekeepers are released.

The disclosure comes one day after an armed group, calling itself the Martyrs of Yarmouk, had pledged to release the 21 peacekeepers. Ladsous's remarks suggested that the effort to extract them had grown increasingly more complicated.

During a briefing to the U.N. Security Council on the crisis, Ladsous said that U.N. officials in Syria had been seeking to negotiate a temporary ceasefire between Syrian armed forces and the insurgents to allow the peacekeepers to be released, a council diplomat told Turtle Bay. The U.N. had expected to secure the blue helmets release this morning, but they were still being held by the time he briefed the Security Council.

"We are hopeful that their release can be accomplished very quickly and we are keeping our fingers crossed," Ladsous  told reporters after briefing the 15-nation body. "The situation is as follows: our peacekeepers are detained in the village of al Jamlah. Apparently they are safe; they have been spread into five or four locations within the villages, in basements of various houses. That part of the village is subject to intense shelling by the Syrian armed forces."

The episode highlighted the risk of the Syrian civil war spreading beyond the theater of conflict inside the country. The captured U.N. peacekeepers are serving as part of a U.N. Disengagement and Observation Force, which is monitoring a 1974 ceasefire between Israel and Syria along the Golan Heights.  The fighting erupted in the town of al Jamlah, less than a mile from the Golan, and it has drawn the U.N. peacekeeping mission into the fray.

It was the second time in a week that U.N. blue helmets had been caught in the middle of fighting between the army and the insurgents around the town of al Jamlah, according to U.N. sources. Last weekend, three unarmed U.N. observers at the nearby U.N. Observation Post 58 got trapped between the warring combatants, forcing them to ultimately evacuate the post. Ladsous said the U.N. had since decided to evacuate another U.N. post because it was exposed to fire.

Ladsous voiced concern about the fate of the al Jamlah's villagers in the event that the U.N. blue helmets leave. "We all hope ... that there would not be retaliatory action by the Syrian armed forces over the village and its civilian population after our people have left."

Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari denied Ladsous's account of events, telling reporters outside the U.N. Security Council that "the Syrian government is not shelling the village. "We know for sure what we are doing and we know where the peacekeepers are." Jaafari said Syria is "sacrificing the lives of our soldiers in order to bring these peacekeepers [to safety]. We are paying a huge price for their safety."

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