Filipino peacekeepers escape Golan standoff

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

In this photo released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines Public Affairs Office, Philippine Military Chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang, center, reacts after learning about the safe repositioning of Filipino peacekeepers in Golan Heights as they monitor the situation with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario, second left, Philippine National Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, third from left seated, at Camp Aguinaldo military headquarters in suburban Quezon city, Philippines on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014. (AP Photo)

MANILA -- All Filipino peacekeepers have escaped from two areas in the Golan Heights that came under attack by Syrian rebels, the Philippine military chief said Sunday.

Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said more than 70 Filipino peacekeepers were surrounded by the rebels and had to return fire in self-defense before managing to escape after a seven-hour siege.

Catapang said the Filipinos separately moved to positions that were safely away from any further threat.

"We may call it the greatest escape," he added.

The clashes came after Syrian rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, overran the Quneitra crossing on the frontier between Syrian and Israeli controlled parts of the Golan on Wednesday.

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. [Read the related story.]

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," Tutaan 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.

Fijian Commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga said three vehicles filled with about 150 armed rebels converged on the Fijian camp around 7:30 a.m. (Syrian time).

"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.

Zagala said the UN peacekeepers avoided 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 added. (AP/Sunnex)

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