Pinoy peacekeepers well-armed, still holding position

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Philippine Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Domingo Tutaan (left) points to a map to show the area of operations of Filipino peacekeepers at Golan Heights beside Col. Roberto Ancan, Commanding Officer of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Peacekeeping Operations Center, during a press conference at Camp Aguinaldo military headquarters in Quezon City on Friday, August 29, 2014. (AP)

MANILA (Updated) -- The situation involving 75 Filipino peacekeepers deployed to conflict-racked Golan Heights remained "stable" as the soldiers still hold their positions despite being surrounded by Syrian anti-government forces.

Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan said the Syrian rebels surrounded two encampments about four kilometers (2.5 miles) apart occupied by the Filipino peacekeepers and demanded that they give up their firearms, but the peacekeepers refused.

"This resulted in a standoff," he said, reading from a statement. The standoff began around 10 a.m. (4 a.m. in the Philippines) on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, an area divided between Israel and Syria.

"Our peacekeepers are holding their ground to defend their positions. They are prepared, trained, and capable of dealing with these situations and will take risks to fulfill our commitment to international security and peace. The peacekeeping contingent has the right to defend its positions and their units in line with United Nations protocols and rules of engagement," said Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Public Affairs chief Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala.

However, "the potential for de-escalation is still positive," said Tutaan.

The military leadership in the Philippines was in direct communication with the peacekeepers, he added.

Forty-four Fijian soldiers working as United Nations (UN) peacekeepers remained captive to the Syrian rebel group, while the 75 Filipino soldiers were in tense standoff with the rebels.

Both the Philippines and Fiji remained hopeful the impasse could be resolved without bloodshed.

Fijian Commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga said he's been informed his soldiers are unharmed, although he hasn't been able to contact them directly.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, for his part, is monitoring the situation. He said Friday that there was no reason to believe his troops faced immediate danger.

The AFP reported that the Syrian rebels occupied the position of Fiji nationals under Undof in Golan Heights.

According to Tikoitoga, three vehicles filled with about 150 armed rebels converged on the Fijian camp around 7:30 a.m. (Syrian time).

He said the rebels demanded the Fijian soldiers leave within 10 minutes and insisted they board the rebel vehicles. The Fijians were then taken by the rebels to an unknown location. He said he's been told they were later transported back to their original post.

"We are all doing our best to ensure the safety of (those) that are currently being held captive," Tikoitoga said.

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

Tutaan said an English-speaking Fijian peacekeeper was sent by the rebels to tell the Filipinos to give up their weapons.

But the Filipino peacekeepers "held their ground and demonstrated their resolve to defend their positions."

"They did not surrender their firearms as they may in turn be held hostage themselves," said Zagala.

Colonel Roberto Ancan, commander of the Philippine military's Peacekeeping Operations Center, said the soldiers were armed with assault rifles, light machine guns and pistols and had enough ammunition to defend themselves.

"We have our rules of engagement wherein we can use deadly force in defense of United Nations facilities," he said.

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.

Meanwhile, Fiji's commander asked people from his nation to pray for their soldiers.

Fiji has one of the world's smaller militaries, comprising just 3,500 troops, of which 434 had been sent to assist with peacekeeping efforts in the Golan Heights.

The UN said initially that 43 Fijian soldiers had been detained and 81 Philippine peacekeepers had been effectively trapped after being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah.

Fiji later clarified that 44 of its soldiers had been captured, while the Philippines military said 75 of its troops were trapped.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the detention of the Fijians.

"I call for their immediate and unconditional release as well as action for the scores of peacekeepers from the Philippines who are also affected," he said on Indonesia's Bali Island.

He said the UN will do everything possible to secure the release of the soldiers.

Fiji said it would not be pressured into withdrawing from its peacekeeping efforts in the Golan Heights.

"We will not shy away from that responsibility under these circumstances," Tikoitoga said. "We will continue to work very hard for the release of our men and at the same time we will put all our men on alert to ensure that no further incidents of this sort happen to them."

Ban's statement did not specify which armed group is holding the peacekeepers. Various Syrian rebel groups, including the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, have been fighting the Syrian military near the Golan Heights. (SDR/Third Anne Peralta/AP/PNA/Sunnex)

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