Aquino monitors standoff in Golan Heights

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Friday, August 29, 2014

MANILA (Updated) -- President Benigno Aquino III decided Friday to cut short his provincial trip to attend to the situation of Filipino peacekeepers involved in a standoff with Syrian rebels in Golan Heights.

In a speech, the Chief Executive assured that there was no immediate danger against the 75 Filipino peacekeepers, who are members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Undof).

"Sa ngayon, bagama't tense 'yung sitwasyon ay tila wala ho naman talagang masasabi nating panganib na inuulat sa ating Kagawaran ng Tanggulan," he said.

The President said he initially planned to stay overnight in Oriental Mindoro, but he had to return immediately to Manila.

He said Oriental Mindoro Governor Alfonso Umali invited him on the briefing of the circumferential roads and other projects in the province.

"Tapos 'yung pinaglandingan ho ng helicopter, mga nakatatlong resort ho yata ‘yung dinaanan e. Ang plano ho kasi masubukan kong maging turista ngayong gabi dito sa Mindoro Oriental. ‘Yon ho ‘yung plano. ‘Yung katotohanan ho pinababalik na ‘ko sa Maynila pagkatapos nito dahil meron ho—alam naman njyo meron tayong konting problema sa Golan Heights doon sa ating mga peacekeepers na nadamay ‘dun sa civil war na nangyayari po sa Syria," he said.

But he said there was nothing to worry about as the situation in Syria seemed to be stable.

Malacanang also expressed hope for the safe and immediate resolution of the standoff in Golan Heights.

In a text message to reporters, Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said the government continues to monitor the situation in the Golan Heights, especially the developments concerning the Filipino contingent to Undof.

"It is our hope that this matter will be resolved in a safe manner in the soonest possible time," he said.

Lacierda said the Philippines joins the rest of the world in praying for the safety of all the peacekeepers in the region, in particular the Filipino soldiers who continue to carry out their honorable duties.

"They are showing the world the courage of the Filipino spirit," he added.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported that the Syrian rebels occupied the position of Fiji nationals under Undof in Golan Heights. The rebels demanded their firearms and later took 43 Fijians as hostages.

The Syrian rebels also surrounded the encampments of the Philippine contingent.

"Our peacekeepers are holding their ground to defend their positions," said AFP Public Affairs chief Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala.

"Our soldiers are prepared, trained, and capable of dealing with these situations and will take risks to fulfil our commitment to international security and peace. The peacekeeping contingent has the right to defend its positions and their units in line with UN protocols and rules of engagement," he added.

The AFP has already expressed its concern for the safety of Filipino soldiers, as well as the hostaged Fijian peacekeepers in Golan Heights.

Zagala said the UN peacekeepers avoid responding to rebel attacks as they keep their eyes on their goal, which is to resolve the crisis peacefully.

"Sa rules of engagement, we can protect ourselves but the real mission is to keep the peace. Pero kapag ang safety at security na ng ating mga kasundaluhan ang nacompromise, it is our national interest to protect our troops," he said.

He said the order of not surrendering their weapons to the Syrian rebels came both from the AFP and from the UN peacekeeping command.

"Itong weapons natin ay hindi natin pwedng basta ibigay sa kanila dahil ito ay kailangan natin sa ating mandato at the same time ito ang nagsisislbing proteksyon natin bilang peacekeepers. Part of our rules of engagement is to keep our firearms," Zagala said.

The 81 UN peacekeepers from the Philippines are part of the 300 troops deployed in the Middle East to cooperate with the UN peacekeeping operation together with 1,400 other troops from 122 countries.

Zagala said that all actions of the Philippine contingent will be in accordance to their mission under the Undof that supervises the area of separation between Syria and Israel in line with the Disengagement Agreement of 1974. (SDR/Third Anne Peralta/Sunnex)

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