Syria opposition: No talks under way to free UN peacekeepers

Syria opposition: No talks under way to free UN peacekeepers

Opposition forces holding 21 UN peacekeepers near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in southern Syria said on Friday no talks were under way to free the men and gave no indication that they would be released soon Today`s Zaman reported.

"There are no negotiations between any parties," said Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the "Martyrs of Yarmouk" brigade that captured the Filipino peacekeepers on Wednesday.

The men are part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been monitoring a cease-fire line between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights since 1974.

Their capture just a mile (1.6 kilometers) 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 villageof Jamla by civilians and the opposition opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.

The United Nations said the captives had been detained by around 30 opposition 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.

"Negotiations should be between [the United Nations] and the regime of Bashar al-Assad to stop the bombing and lift the blockade of the area so it can be safe," Taseel said.

The Damascus government has not commented publicly about the incident.
Incursions in demilitarized zone

Taseel said the UN observers had a responsibility to keep heavy weapons out of the area.

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

A UN report in December said both the Syrian army and the opposition had been present in the de-militarized 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 jeopardise the ceasefire between the two countries."

In January Israel bombed an arms convoy in Syria which 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 Israeli army told Reuters that eight UNDOF soldiers were "evacuated into Israel" from their lookout post on Friday, but gave no reason for the move.
Russia won't tell Assad to go

Meanwhile, Russia will "absolutely not" tell Assad to step down to end the civil war and make way for a political transition, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in comments published on Friday.

The remarks to the BBC were a reiteration of Moscow's position that Assad's exit must not be a precondition for a negotiated solution to the two-year-old conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people.

Asked whether there was a chance that Russia would tell Assad he should step down for the sake of a peace agreement, Lavrov replied: "Absolutely not. You know that we're not in the regime-change game."

"We are against interference in domestic conflicts. And this is our position, which should be of no surprise to anyone," he said, according to an English-language version of his comments posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website.

Lavrov said Assad had repeatedly said he was not going to leave.

"All those who get in touch with him know that he is not bluffing, and that he is prepared to discuss any issue -- among the Syrians."

Russia has blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to push Assad out or press him to end violence, a position that has set it against Western and Arab nations which say he must leave power.

Lavrov said he saw signs of flexibility. "I'm glad that the latest discussions and the latest gestures from the opposition, and statements from some of those who support the opposition, hint that they would be prepared to start negotiations with some negotiating team without asking President Assad to step down," he was quoted as saying.

Lavrov spoke before a visit to London next week for the first meeting under the auspices of a new "strategic dialogue" between Russia and Britain. Syria is among the issues on the agenda for the talks on Wednesday between the two countries' foreign and defense ministers.

The Kremlin and the US government have spoken recently of the need to step up efforts to end the war and start a political transition but several meetings -- including one in London on Thursday between senior Russian and US diplomats -- have brought few signs of progress.

The United Nations says around 70,000 people have been killed in Syria in the past two years. An uprising that began with mainly peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 has spiraled into an increasingly sectarian armed conflict.

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