MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) - The Philippines on Thursday, March 7, called for the immediate release of the 21 Filipino peacekeepers taken hostage by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights.
"The main concern of the Philippine government at this time is to ensure the safety and well-being of our peacekeepers. We wish to reiterate that UNDOF’s freedom of movement and safety and security must be respected by all parties in the area," Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a statement.
All hostages unharmed and "negotiations are underway to secure their safe release" in coordination with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
The Filipino peacekeepers -- 18 soldiers and 3 officers -- are assigned to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights, which includes more 300 Philippine troops.
This contingent, which arrived in November 2012, is the 6th sent by the Philippines to take part in the UNDOF mission in the area since 1974.
Abducted inside ceasefire zone
Syrian rebels on Wednesday abducted the Filipinos inside the ceasefire zone of the area disputed by Syria and Israel, as the violence from the rebel campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spread further.
The UN said it is trying to negotiate the release of the soldiers, but a rebel spokesman said the troops would be held until Assad's forces pull back from a village.
In Manila, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Col Arnulfo Burgos told Rappler that the hostages are safe, but withheld their identities.
About 30 armed fighters stopped a UNDOF regular supply mission in the Golan Heights, where UN peacekeepers have been monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also called for the "immediate" release of the Filipinos and demanded that the Syrian government and rebels respect "UNDOF's freedom of movement and security."
File photo of a the Philippine detachment of UNDOF in the Golan Heights, Syria courtesy of Elmer Cato
Kidnapping 'violation of international law' - Del Rosario
In a 2nd statement, the DFA "strongly" condemned the kidnapping of peacekeepers operating under the UN flag.
“The apprehension and illegal detention of the Filipino peacekeepers are gross violations of international law,” Del Rosario said.
The statement added that the 21 hostages are "international personnel clothed with immunity and mantle of protection similar to diplomatic agents and personnel. These rights are inviolable and their transgression is punishable under international law."
While the 21 Filipinos are still held by the Syrian rebels, the DFA called for them to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention under Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel.
President Benigno Aquino III later said he had received information that the peacekeepers are "treated well" and may be released as early as Thursday afternoon.
Satellite image from Google Maps
Hostages treated like visitors - DFA
Shortly after Aquino's comments, DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez confirmed the hostages "are unharmed and they are being treated as visitors and guests."
Hernandez also noted that the kidnappers have not asked for ransom or given any deadline.
The negotiation, the spokesman explained, is being conducted by UNDOF, whose commanding officer is talking directly to the leader of the Syrian rebel group.
Hernandez told reporters in a press briefing that the Philippine government is seeking support from all concerned parties to secure the release of the Filipinos, which "we hope (…) will be effective very soon."
The spokesman refused to discuss specific details of the incident while the negotiation is ongoing, but pointed out that the 21 hostages where traveling in vehicles with tinted windows, so they kidnappers "would not [have known] if who was inside were Filipinos or not."
The Philippines has a total of 333 police and military personnel deployed in the Golan Heights and a total of 730 peacekeepers in 8 countries around the world. - Rappler.com