Golan standoff: 75 Phl soldiers hold ground
Alexis Romero (The Philippine Star) - August 30, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Seventy-five Filipino peacekeepers stationed in the Golan Heights are holding off Syrian rebels who have surrounded their encampment.

Speaking to reporters, Armed Forces spokesman Maj. Gen. Domingo Tutaan Jr. yesterday said the Filipino troops are safe, and that the United Nations is trying to peacefully resolve the situation.

“The potential for the de-escalation of the situation is still positive,” Tutaan said. “(The Filipino peacekeepers) have been directed to stand their ground in the area to avoid any escalation of (violence).”

The Filipino soldiers are armed and ready to defend themselves if attacked.

Col. Roberto Ancan, Armed Forces Peacekeeping Operations Center chief, said the Filipino soldiers are armed with M4 assault rifles, M60 light machine guns, K3 squad automatic weapons and cal. 45 pistols and have sufficient ammunition.

“There was no actual firefight that happened since this issue or this incident escalated,” he said. “There was no direct contact or engagement with the anti-government armed elements of Syria and our forces.”

The Filipino soldiers are occupying two positions   about four kilometers apart, Ancan said.

Syrian rebels demanded that the Filipino soldiers surrender their weapons like the Fijian peacekeepers had done earlier.

Armed Forces public affairs chief Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said the Filipino peacekeepers are under orders to hold on to their weapons.

“They demonstrated their resolve to defend themselves,” he said. “They did not surrender their firearms as they may in turn be held hostage themselves.”

Tutaan said the Filipinos have the right to defend themselves in line with UN protocols and rules of engagement.

“Our soldiers are prepared, trained and capable of dealing with these situations and will take risks to fulfill our commitment to international security and peace,” he said.

Zagala said the Filipino soldiers have enough food and water provisions, and are in constant touch with UN and Filipino military officials in Camp Aguinaldo.

“We have constant touch with our troops through various communication lines,” he said.

Syrian rebels occupied the camp of 43 Fijian peacekeepers at around 10 a.m. Syrian time (3 p.m. in the Philippines) and demanded that they   surrender their weapons.

When the Fijian soldiers acceded to the rebel demands, they were taken hostage.

Negotiations

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said he is looking forward to an early resolution of the crisis.

“We are hoping that the crisis will end today (or sooner) as negotiations are continuing,” he said.

Signs are on the horizon that the crisis will be resolved soon, Gazmin said.

Crisis justifies pullout

A former commander of the UN Disengagement Force (UNDOF) said yesterday the latest crisis in the Golan Heights justifies the government decision to pull out Filipino peacekeepers.

Defense Undersecretary Natalio Ecarma III, who served as UNDOF chief in 2010, said the safety of Filipino troops was the main consideration behind the decision.

“The President said: ‘I am the father or I am the President of 100 million Filipinos, even these soldiers who are in Golan Heights. I care for their safety and security.’ So this new threat, in a way, justifies his decision.

“One of the requirements of the UN is to ensure the safety and security of our peacekeeping forces. For now, we can see that our peacekeepers in Golan Heights are threatened.”

Ecarma said the UNDOF deal with crises through negotiations, not through confrontation.

“UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his assistant secretaries are contacting, back-channeling, talking to those who are supporting these rebel groups to talk to them and make them stand down and not continue threatening our peacekeepers,” he said.

‘Courage of the Filipino spirit’

Filipino peacekeepers are showing the world the “courage of the Filipino spirit,” Malacañang said yesterday.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the government continues to monitor the situation in the Golan Heights, especially the developments concerning the Filipino peacekeepers.

“It is our hope that this matter will be resolved in a safe manner in the soonest possible time,” he said. “We join the rest of the world in praying for the safety of all the peacekeepers in the region, in particular our countrymen who continue to carry out their honorable duties.”

President Aquino said he will return from Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro as soon as possible to personally monitor the problem in the Golan Heights.

“Despite the tense situation, there doesn’t seem to be real danger being reported by the Department of (National) Defense,” he said.

Speaking to reporters, Aquino sought to calm fears about the fate of the Filipino troops.

“So far, we should not worry,” he said. “The news is that the situation looks stable.”

Safety of Filipino troops

The Philippines urged yesterday the UN to exert all efforts to ensure the safety of Filipinos in the Golan Heights.

Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Charles Jose said the movement of the Filipino troops are being restricted at two UN Disengagement Observer Force positions following the abduction of the Fijian peacekeepers.

“The Philippines expresses grave concern for the escalation of violence in the Golan Heights and condemns hostile actions directed at UN peacekeepers,” he said.

The Philippines called for the immediate release of 43 Fijian peacekeepers that Syrian rebels have taken hostage.

The Philippines is appealing to all involved parties to respect the mandate of the UNDOF, he added.

Jose said the Philippines cannot abandon its commitment to the UN despite the standoff between Filipino troops and Syrian rebels.

“First of all, we have a commitment to the UN,” he said.

“Second, they are soldiers, they are peacekeepers, they are precisely there in conflict areas to maintain the peace.”

Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV  urged the DFA to bail out Filipino troops facing Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights.

“I urge the DFA to exhaust all diplomatic means and channels necessary to get our troops out of the perilous situation as soon as possible,” he said,

He commended the bravery of Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights for holding their ground despite superior enemy forces, he added. –With Jaime Laude, Aurea Calica, Pia Lee-Brago, Christina Mendez

 

ARMED FORCES FILIPINO GOLAN GOLAN HEIGHTS HEIGHTS PEACEKEEPERS SOLDIERS TROOPS
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