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Syrian rebels capture four U.N. peacekeepers

UNITED NATIONSA Syrian rebel group detained four U.N. peacekeepers on patrol on the Golan Heights in a tense area that separates Syria and Israel, the U.N. said Tuesday.

It was the second time in two months that unarmed U.N. military observers have been taken captive by the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigades, and illustrated again the vulnerability of the U.N. peacekeeping mission amid the spillover from the war in Syria, which is now in its third year. The separation zone on the Golan Heights is supposed to be free of any armed groups but in recent months it has been the scene of fighting between Syrian government forces and rebel fighters.

Israeli soldiers walk past an unmanned UN watchtower May 7, 2013 on the Israeli side of the border between the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights and Syria. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Kieran Dwyer, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping department, said the four peacekeepers, all from the Philippines, were taken by an armed group near Jamla on Tuesday and "efforts are underway to secure their release now." U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said later that the Yarmouk brigade had claimed responsibility.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the detention of the peacekeepers and called for their immediate release, Nesirky said.

A spokesman for the rebel group holding the four peacekeepers said in a phone interview with The Associated Press that the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigades, which is operating in the Golan Heights, is holding the peacekeepers. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is outside of Syria and is serving as a mediator on peaceful matters concerning the group.

In a statement that was posted on the group's Facebook page Tuesday, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigades said the peacekeepers are not their hostages, but are being kept with them for their own safety.

In early March, the same rebel group held 21 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers for four days before releasing them unharmed after tough negotiations.

The rebel unit said that it suspects that peacekeepers are shielding Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops who the rebels said killed civilians during an army sweep of Wadi Raqat, a town in southern Syria.

The U.N. monitoring mission, known as UNDOF, was set up in 1974, seven years after Israel captured the Golan and a year after it managed to push back Syrian troops trying to recapture the territory in another regional war.

For nearly four decades, the U.N. monitors have helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria.

But in recent months, Syrian mortars overshooting their target have repeatedly hit the Israeli-controlled Golan. In Israel's most direct involvement so far, Israeli warplanes struck inside Syria in January, according to U.S. officials who said the target was a convoy carrying anti-aircraft weapons bound for Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia allied with Assad and Iran. The Israelis struck targets in Syria again over the weekend.

After the 21 peacekeepers were taken in March, the U.N. vacated two vulnerable posts in the separation zone and took other measures to beef up security for the peacekeepers.

Secretary-General Ban reminded all parties in the Syrian conflict that the U.N. is monitoring a disengagement of forces agreement between Israel and Syria and called for its freedom of movement, safety and security to be respected, Nesirky said.

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