Discuss as:

Syria rebels won't harm captured UN peacekeepers, activist says

A group claiming to be Syrian rebels said they took the hostages and will detain them until Syrian president Assad's forces withdraw from their town. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

BEIRUT - Rebels holding 21 U.N. peacekeepers near the Golan Heights in southern Syria say they will not harm them but insist government forces must pull back from the region before they are freed, an activist said on Thursday.

Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted a spokesman for the "Martyrs of Yarmouk" rebel brigade as saying the convoy of Philippine peacekeepers were being held as "guests" in the village of Jamla, about one mile from a ceasefire line with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

"He said they will not be harmed. But the rebels want the Syrian army and tanks to pull back from the area," Abdelrahman said after speaking to the rebel spokesman on Thursday morning.

The capture of the U.N. peacekeepers close to Israeli-held territory was another sign that Syria's conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over to neighboring countries.

Israel has said it will not "stand idle" if violence spreads to the Golan, which it captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

/

A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.

Suspected Sunni Muslim insurgents killed 48 Syrian troops inside Iraq on Monday and cross-border artillery fired from Syria has killed people in Lebanon and Turkey in recent months.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino said the peacekeepers were being well treated and that the United Nations was in touch with the rebels to ensure their safety. "By tomorrow they expect all of these 21 to be released," he said, adding their release might occur as early as Thursday.

Aquino said both sides in the Syrian conflict considered the United Nations a "benign presence" in the country - a view not shared by many Syrian rebels, who hold the organisation at least partly responsible for a lack of international support.

In a video released to announce the capture of the U.N. convoy on Wednesday, a member of the Yarmouk Martyrs' Brigade accused the peacekeepers of collaborating with Assad's forces to try to push them out of village of Jamla which the rebels seized on Sunday after heavy fighting.

Peacekeepers of the U.N. Disengagement Force (UNDOF) mission have been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, for nearly four decades. 

NBC News

People resisting the army of President Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.

Related:

'Human river' of Syria refugees hits 1 million; UK to send armored vehicles to rebels

Analysis: Can aid without weapons help resolve Syria crisis?