PHILIPPINE NEWS, MANILA – A group of 40 Filipino UN soldiers surrounded by Islamist militants in Syria’s Golan Heights secured their freedom today, in what has been described as the “greatest escape” by General Gregorio Catapang, the Philippines’ armed forces chief.
Filipino troops engaged about 100 Islamist militants surrounding them in a seven-hour firefight, Catapang said in a news conference. The militants rammed the camp’s gates with their trucks and fired mortar rounds after the troops refused to surrender with their weapons. Surrounded and besieged, they returned fire in self-defence. The troops escaped in the middle of the night while the rebels were sleeping, he said.
“This attack prompted UNDOF to reposition our troops to a more secure position within the mission area,” Catapang said, referring to the UN peacekeeping force that has monitored the disengagement zone in the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria since 1974, following the Yom Kippur War in 1973. “We commend our soldiers for exhibiting resolve even while under heavy fire.”
Syrian rebels on Saturday had surrounded two groups of Filipino soldiers working for a UN observer force, Al Jazeera reported. Late on Saturday, UN diplomatic sources said militants had reinforced their siege of the 40 peacekeepers trapped at UN Position 68.
The UN press office said in a statement that “shortly after midnight local time on 31 August, during a cease-fire agreed with the armed elements, all the 40 Filipino peacekeepers from UN Position 68 left the position. The 40 peacekeepers arrived in a safe location one hour later.”
Their escape came after another group of 32 Filipinos were rescued Saturday after a fierce battle with armed fighters at UN Position 69. Catapang said Irish UNDOF troops helped in the rescue. It was not known if any rebels were killed or wounded in the operation.
“Currently, Filipino peacekeepers from both Position 68 and 69 have been successfully repositioned to Camp Ziuoani,” he said.
Colonel Roberto Ancan, head of the Philippine military’s peacekeeping operations center, said Syrian government forces fired artillery at the rebels, weakening their positions surrounding the peacekeepers. None of the peacekeepers were wounded, he said.
“All 32 Filipino personnel from this position have been extricated and are now safe,” the UN press office said in a statement issued in New York. “The UN peacekeepers returned fire and prevented the attackers from entering the position.”
In a separate incident, a group of 44 Fijian UN soldiers were captured by rebels on Thursday at the Quneitra crossing, in an operation led by the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda offshoot based in Syria.
A commander with the Nusra Front, said the Fijian peacekeepers had been detained because UNDOF was aiding the government of President Bashar Assad and had ignored the suffering of the Syrian people.
UNDOF has been deployed “since 1974 to ensure the safety and protection of the borders with the usurper of the lands of the Muslims (Israel), at the same time it completely ignored the daily shedding of the Muslims’ blood on the other side of the border,” a Nusra message said on Twitter.
It added that the men were being treated well and were in good health.
The UN on Saturday said the Fijians were safe and their captors stated they were taken “for their own safety”, Al Jazeera said.
Last week the government said it would bring home all 331 Filipino peacekeeping troops from the Golan Heights in October. Austria, Japan and Croatia have also recently pulled their troops out of UNDOF due to the worsening security situation in Syria.
UPDATE: Tuesday 2nd September
The Philippine military has demanded that the commander of the UNDOF be investigated for allegedly endangering the safety of the Filipino peacekeeping troops engaged in the Golan Heights standoff.
General Catapang alleged on Monday that Lt. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha, the Indian commanding officer, ordered the Filipino troops to lay down their arms in order to secure the safety of the Fijian soldiers seized earlier by Syrian rebels.
“Under the Terms of Reference, it wasn’t mentioned there that we can be ordered to surrender our firearms,” Catapang said. “The UNDOF commander wanted to save the Fijians at the expense of the Filipinos.”
He said that Singha had also ordered the Filipino peacekeepers to “raise the white flag.”
“He (Singha) said that if we were attacked, we should raise the white flag. I said no way. That means our soldiers will also be held hostage,” Catapang said.
Catapang was asked if he expects Singha to apologize for ordering a surrender, he responded: “I don’t think he will. There is actually no need to say sorry. What is needed is that he be investigated.”
Col. Roberto Ancan, chief of the AFP Peacekeeping Operations Center, said the troops ignored Singha’s order and told him of their actions, which he supported.
“Our troops on the ground do not want to do that (surrender) and it was relayed to me. And I also told them that it’s a no-go because if they [surrender] their firearms, what would you do to defend yourself?” said Ancan.
“As troops-contributing country, our national interest will prevail over the situation. We can do that, we can take orders from our national government, from the capital,” he added.