Members of a team of UN observers were rescued by rebel fighters from the Syrian Free Army (SFA) on Tuesday after they came under fire in Khan Sheikhoun.
The observers reportedly came under fire when forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad opened fire on a funeral procession in the town.
When Reuters asked one of the four monitors by phone if they were being held prisoner, he said: “We are safe with the (rebel) Free Army.”
The monitor said gunfire had erupted as a seven-man UN team toured Khan Sheikhoun where a funeral procession was occurring, then a blast damaged one of the group’s vehicles.
A spokesman for the rebel SFA council said the rebels were working on a safe exit for the monitors. In previous months, SFA fighters have smuggled foreign journalists threatened by regime forces out of the country.
In Damascus Major General Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. monitoring mission, told reporters the team was safe, but refused to elaborate due to security concerns.
An internal UN document obtained by Reuters said that a total of six monitors were under rebel “protection” in a “friendly environment" for "their own protection."
“They are now with the Free Army which is protecting them. If they leave, the regime will terminate them because they have witnessed one of its crimes and it does not want them to tell the truth,” rebel Major Sami al-Kurdi told AFP.
“We will get them out tomorrow,” he said. The internal UN document confirmed the UN team in Syria “will conduct a patrol to pick up the mentioned UNMOs (observers)” on Wednesday.
Kurdi told AFP the monitors had arrived during the funeral and that their presence had encouraged more mourners to turn out and join the procession.
“The regime dared to attack the procession, however, and then targeted the vehicles of the UN observers from a regime checkpoint,” he said.
Each side blamed the other for the attack in Khan Sheikhoun in northern Idlib province. Some rebel and opposition sources put the death toll from the attack as high as 66.
The Observatory said government troops had opened fire on a funeral procession in the town, about 140 miles north of Damascus.
Ahmed Fawzi, international mediator Kofi Annan’s spokesman, said the convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device.
“Three U.N. vehicles were damaged but no U.N. personnel were hurt in this explosion. The mission has sent a patrol team to the area to help to extract those U.N. military observers,” he said in a statement.
Internet footage appeared to show a white vehicle, like those used by the monitors, with a damaged front.
“After regime forces raided the neighborhood of Shammas, 15 civilians were found summarily executed,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based watchdog the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP.
He said a Muslim cleric who had six children was among those killed.
Reports of war crimes by regime forces - including the systemic kidnapping, rape, torture, and mass execution of dissidents, rebels, and their families - have become commonplace in Syria in recent months.
Elswhere, Al-Arabiya reported on Wednesday that as many as sixteen people were killed by Syrian forces in other locales across the country overnight.
The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) and Syrian Media Center reported regime forces shelled central Deraa overnight, killing at least eight people, including two children.
Earlier, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) issued a statement accusing forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of committing a “new massacre” in Khan Sheikhoun town in Idlib.
The SNC emphasized Assad had violated UN envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan “from Azzaz in Aleppo to Dael to al-Harak and Kharbat al-Ghazala in Deraa as well as Damascus suburbs, Baniyas, Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deir Ezzor."
UN officials say at least 9,100 people have been killed in Assad's brutal 14-month crackdown on the popular uprising against his embattled autocratic regime.
However, the world body formally stopped counting months ago due to the pervasive chaos gripping the country in what is proving the most entrenched and bloody Arab Spring revolt.
The Observatory says more than 12,000 people, the majority of them civilians, have died since the uprising began on 15 March 2011. More than 900 have been killed since the April 12 truce.