Syrian rebels release 4 UN Filipino peacekeepers
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian rebels on Sunday released four Filipino U.N. peacekeepers they abducted last week in a dramatic incident that prompted warnings from the Philippines that the nation might pull out its contingent from the Golan Heights.
Meanwhile, a Syrian official said President Bashar Assad's troops have the right to enter the Israeli-occupied Golan whenever they wish — a veiled threat toward Israel to stay out of Syria's conflict.
Also Sunday, Damascus rejected Turkey's allegations that Syria was behind two car bombings that killed 46 people in Turkey and wounded dozens more the day before.
The four Filipinos, seized Tuesday, were apparently unharmed, but they will undergo a medical checkup and stress debriefing, said Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan.
A statement by the rebel group holding the peacekeepers — the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade — said the four were handed over to a U.N. delegation in the border area on Sunday, but provided no other details.
The peacekeepers are part of a U.N. contingent that patrols a buffer zone between Syria and the Golan Heights, a plateau Israel captured from Syria in 1967.
It was the second abduction of Filipino peacekeepers since March, when 21 were held for three days by rebels fighting Assad.
The Philippine foreign secretary has said he would recommend withdrawing Filipinos from the peacekeeping contingent in Syria, but the final decision is up to the country's president.
Nearly 1,000 U.N. peacekeepers patrol the Golan. Other major contributors are India and Austria. Croatia recently withdrew its contingent.
The buffer zone has been largely quiet for four decades, but tensions have risen there since the outbreak of the revolt in Syria more than two years ago.
In Damascus, Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told a news conference on Sunday that Syria has the right to enter the Golan Heights.
"The Golan is Syrian Arab territory and will remain so, even if the Israeli army is stationed there. We have the right to go in and out of it whenever we want and however we please," he said.
His comments came in response to last week's Israeli airstrikes on Syria, which Israeli officials say targeted advanced Iranian missiles intended for Lebanon's Hezbollah.
The strikes marked a sharp escalation of Israel's involvement in the Syrian civil war and raised fears that a conflict that has repeatedly spilled over Syria's borders could turn into a regional war.
Syria has threatened to retaliate but the official response was relatively mild.
"Israel should understand that the Syrian skies are not a picnic for anyone," al-Zoubi warned.
"We are a people who do not forget to retaliate against those who commit aggression against us, and we do not forget our martyrs or those who killed them," he said.
Israeli officials had no comment.
Assad's regime might be reluctant to open a new front against Israel with his army already stretched thin in the deadlocked fight with the rebels.
But he has a history of operating through proxies, such as the Lebanese militant Hezbollah or radical Syrian-based Palestinian factions that can potentially launch attacks on Israel from the Golan.
The Syrian uprising escalated into a civil war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions of Syrians. The two sides have been largely deadlocked on the battlefield.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that closely monitors the fighting in Syria, said in a statement Sunday that more than 80,000 people — nearly half of them civilians — have been killed in Syria's conflict since March 2011.
The Syrian government does not release official figures for casualties in the civil war. In February, the U.N. estimated that around 70,000 have died.
In the latest violence in the capital, Damascus, six mortar shells struck a neighborhood, causing damage and casualties, a Syrian official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
The mortars hit the predominantly Alawite district of Mazzeh 86 during the morning rush hour, he said. Sunday is the first day of the work week in Syria.
Alawites are followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and have dominated government for four decades under Assad family rule. Rebels and regime forces have been fighting in parts of Damascus, and rebels have fired mortars at neighborhoods seen as pro-Assad.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, confirmed that mortars struck Mazzeh 86, but said it had no reports of casualties.
The Observatory also reported that regime forces have secured the international highway linking Damascus with the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad's regime began.
The report confirms claims made by state media on Saturday and marks a significant reversal of gains made by rebels in the strategic region near the border with Jordan only few weeks earlier.
Zoubi's comments were the first official Syrian comment since Saturday's blasts in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, near Syria.
The bombings left 46 people dead and marked the biggest incident of violence across the border since the start of Syria's civil war, raising fears that Turkey — once one of Syria's top allies in the region — might be pulled deeper into the conflict.
The Syrian minister alleged that Turkey is responsible "for all that happened in Syria and what happened in Turkey yesterday," accusing Istanbul of facilitating the entry of "terrorists" to Syria.
The Syrian regime routinely describes rebels fighting to topple Assad as terrorists.
Al-Zoubi also launched one of the harshest personal attacks on Turkey's prime minister, demanding that Recep Tayyip Erdogan "step down as a killer and as a butcher."
In Egypt, a senior aide to President Mohammed Morsi said in remarks published Sunday that Egypt is seeking a negotiated solution for the Syrian crisis that would ensure the country's territorial integrity and prevent foreign intervention.
Essam el-Haddad, a presidential assistant on foreign affairs, said Egypt is developing its regional initiative and that representatives of the Damascus regime who have "no blood on their hands" must be approved by the opposition before they can negotiate.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo.