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Abducted UN peacekeepers appear in video, say they're 'safe'

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In this Wednesday, March 6, 2013 image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Free Syrian Army fighters stand next to United Nations Disengagement Observer vehicles near Golan Heights in the southern province of Daraa, Syria. (AP/Ugarit News)

Several United Nations peacekeepers who were abducted by Syrian rebels said in videos posted online Thursday that they are safe and being treated well, even as activists reported clashes and shelling in the tense border area with Israel where the Filipino troops were being held.

Opposition fighters detained 21 peacekeepers near the village of Jamlah in the Golan Heights on Wednesday -- the first time U.N. troops have encountered trouble since they began patrolling an Israeli-Syrian armistice line dividing the plateau nearly 40 years ago, said Timor Goksel, a Beirut-based former United Nations official in the region.

One of the videos posted online shows three men dressed in camouflage and blue bullet-proof vests emblazoned with the U.N. and Philippines.

"We, the U.N. personnel here, are safe, and the Free Syrian Army are treating us good," one of them says in English. "We cannot go home because the government of (President Bashar) Assad do not stop the bombing. To our family, we hope to see you soon and we are OK here."

The second video shows six peacekeepers sitting in a room. An officer, who identifies himself as a captain, says that as their convoy came under shelling on Wednesday, "we stopped and civilian people helped us for our safety and distributed us in different places to keep us safe."

The targeting of the peacekeepers was likely to heighten Israeli jitters about the Syrian civil war upsetting the delicate balance along the frontier between the two countries. Israel captured Syria's Golan Heights in the 1967 Mideast war, and a U.N. monitoring force, UNDOF, was sent in 1974, a year after another Mideast war, to enforce an armistice deal between Syria and Israel.

A spokesman for the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, which is holding the peacekeepers, told The Associated Press via Skype that all the 21 peacekeepers "are fine and in good health."

"We consider them guests," he added.

The U.N. Security Council has demanded their immediate and unconditional release.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Thursday in New York that UNDOF had been in touch with the captive peacekeepers "and confirmed that they have not been harmed." He also said the mission was working for their release.

The rebel spokesman, who declined to give his name for security reasons, said the peacekeepers' job was to ensure that no heavy weapons, such as tanks, enter the area near the Israeli-Syrian armistice line. For months, the regime has been bringing tanks into the area to fight rebels, he said, adding that helicopter gunships joined the battle late last week.

Asked if the rebels will be ready to hand over the peacekeepers to an international organization, he said "the command will have to decide about that." He added that once these peacekeepers leave the area the regime could kill "as many as 1,000 people."

He said at least 10 people have been killed and dozens wounded in the shelling of Jamlah and nearby villages.

On Thursday, Syrian troops battled rebel fighters near the Golan Heights, in the southern Syrian province of Daraa, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group. He said the fighting was concentrated on the outskirts of Jamlah, about one kilometer (half a mile) from Israeli-controlled territory.

In a separate video posted online Wednesday, another rebel who was inspecting the U.N. vehicles said the group will hold the peacekeepers until Assad's forces withdraw from Jamlah.

The videos appeared genuine and in line with AP reporting of the incident.

The Yarmouk Brigades said Thursday in a statement on its Facebook page that Assad's troops are shelling the village and warned that the army will be responsible if any harm comes to the peacekeepers in rebel custody.

In Manila, the Philippine government said Thursday that the peacekeepers were unharmed and were being treated well. Foreign Affairs Department spokesman Raul Hernandez said the U.N. force commander in the area is negotiating with the leader of the rebel group.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the commander told him to expect the peacekeepers to be released within 24 hours, with negotiations progressing well.

The Observatory said negotiations were under way between the rebels, the Arab League and U.N. officials on handing over the peacekeepers, and that the talks were now focused on which road should be used to deliver the U.N. troops. It said the rebels want the regime to pull out its vehicles from the area, permanently end the shelling of the area and allow refugees to return.

It was not immediately clear whether UNDOF will keep operating in Syria even if the incident is resolved peacefully.

"This is a mission that works under a Security Council mandate and has done for many years, since 1974," Nesirky said at U.N. headquarters in New York. "The security conditions on the ground are not easy," and the U.N. force commander on the ground would make decisions about patrols on observation missions, he said.

Goksel, the former U.N. official who now works for Al-Monitor news website, described the members of the peacekeeping force as "a soft target." He said the group is based in Damascus but staffs observation posts along the armistice line and travels between the Syrian capital and the frontier to deliver supplies and rotate monitors.

"They were never challenged by anybody in Syria until now," Goksel said.

The Yarmouk Brigades, one of scores of groups fighting Assad's troops, was formed a year ago and most of its fighters appear to be young Syrians from poor areas in the south, said Observatory director Abdul-Rahman.

In a statement Thursday, the Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said its representatives are in contact with rebels in the Jamlah area "to let the peacekeepers go." The statement denied that seizing the peacekeepers amounted to kidnapping, saying the peacekeepers were taken in a "preventive security measure."

Rebel groups tend to operate independently, despite attempts in December to form a unified military command, and it's not clear whether the local rebels near the Golan will heed calls from leaders based abroad. Rebel fighters tend to see the opposition figures in exile as out of touch.

Senior SNC member Khaled Saleh told the AP that leaders of the group would meet in Istanbul next week to choose an executive committee that will fill Syria's seat at the Arab League. The 22-member Cairo-based organization suspended the Syrian government's membership in late 2011.

Saleh added that an interim government will be set up in the next two weeks.

The coalition has said in the past that it would set up a Syria-based interim government, but has repeatedly failed to follow through. It was not clear whether the two-day gathering in Istanbul, starting Tuesday, would yield results.