Associated Press

Posted on May 7, 2013 at 1:36 PM

c.2013 New York Times News Service

Four U.N. soldiers patrolling part of the disputed Golan Heights area between Syria and Israel were detained Tuesday by Syrian insurgents, the second time in two months that members of the blue-helmeted international peacekeeping force in that region have become entangled in Syria’s civil war.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the detentions and called for the immediate release of the peacekeepers. A spokesman for Ban, Martin Nesirky, told reporters at the United Nations that all parties must respect the peacekeeping force’s “freedom of movement and safety and security.”

A Syrian insurgent group that calls itself the Martyrs of Yarmouk, responsible for the last abduction, asserted that it had taken custody of the four soldiers for their own safety and posted a photograph of the detainees on Facebook. All are Filipinos and did not appear to be harmed.

Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the U.N. departments that oversee its global peacekeeping operations, said efforts to secure the release of the peacekeepers were underway. Guerrero said she could not confirm the identities of their abductors but said they were seized near the hamlet of Al Jamlah, where the previous group had been held.

The Martyrs of Yarmouk detained 21 Filipino members of the Golan peacekeeping force on March 6. That group was freed after four days, following negotiations and international calls for their release.

After that abduction, force commanders deployed more armored cars and decreased the number of patrols.

The Filipino soldiers are a component of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, the peacekeeping unit responsible for patrolling the Golan Heights buffer zone region between Israel and Syria, established in 1974 after a war in which Israel seized part of the strategic area from Syria. Both countries remain in a technical state of war.

The latest abduction episode came against a backdrop of sharply heightened tensions between Syria and Israel in recent days. The government of President Bashar Assad of Syria has accused the Israelis of aerial assaults on military targets near the Syrian capital, Damascus. Israel has not publicly claimed responsibility for those assaults, but Israeli officials have said they will hit targets in Syria that they believe contain armaments destined for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group that is Assad’s ally.

The Israelis have strengthened their military deployment in the Golan Heights area recently, reflecting growing concern by Israel that the 2-year-old civil war in Syria could spill over the disputed border. The Israelis have reported at least 30 instances of errant munitions from Syria landing in the Golan, with at least five prompting Israel to fire back.

The fighting has also created a dilemma for the United Nations on how to continue an important mission while keeping its peacekeepers safe in what has become a combat zone.

Aside from the Philippines, the other soldiers in the roughly 900-member force come from Austria, India, Morocco and Moldova. Croatia withdrew its contingent after revelations in February that it had been shipping arms to the Syrian rebels.