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Gaziantep, Turkey - Syrian rebels abducted around 20 U.N. observers from the Golan Heights on Wednesday and threatened to hold them until the Syrian government withdraws its troops from the area, marking the most serious escalation of the conflict yet along Syria's southern border with Israel.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council swiftly issued a statement condemning "armed elements" of the Syrian opposition for the abduction and demanded the "unconditional and immediate release" of all the observers.
The United Nations' top peacekeeper, Herve Ladsous, indicated that negotiations had already begun to secure the freedom of the observers, who serve as part of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force monitoring the 1967 cease-fire line between Syria and Israel.
"It's a very serious incident. The situation is ongoing, negotiations are going on, and the matter is mobilizing all of our teams," Ladsous told reporters after briefing the council.
The abductions were first publicized in a video posted on the Facebook page of a rebel group calling itself the Yarmouk Martyrs' Brigade. The camera pans to show several white armored vehicles painted with the U.N. logo as a fighter, dressed in a black woolen hat, calls upon "America and the U.N. Security Council" to address the group's demands.
"We won't release them unless Bashar al-Assad's troops withdraw from the village of Jamlah on the borders with Israel," the man says. "If they don't leave within 48 hours, we are going to deal with these people as prisoners."
A U.N. statement said approximately 20 observers had been stopped and detained by a group of around 30 armed fighters earlier in the day. The observers were on a regular supply mission when they were stopped near a post that had been damaged in the recent fighting and had been evacuated over the weekend.
The rebel Free Syrian Army condemned the abductions and said the group holding the observers is not part of its structures. Louay al-Mokdad, the political and media coordinator for the mainstream Free Syrian Army, said units loyal to its leadership in the Golan area had launched a hunt to find both the observers and the rebels who are holding them.
"We are not responsible for this, and we are in communication with all our groups to figure out who this group is and to try to solve it as soon as we can," Mokdad said. "This is not the right action to take. We should protect the U.N. soldiers."
But the Free Syrian Army's leadership exerts only loose control over the units that do support it, and hundreds of other small groups that have sprung up around the country owe allegiance to no one.