THE stand-off involving Filipino peacekeepers at the Golan Heights in Syria turned into a shoot-out as Syrian rebels attacked the two fortified United Nations outposts on Saturday, officials said on Saturday.
National Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the 35 Filipino peacekeepers at Position 69 in the Syrian side of the 1973 Disengagement Line, near the Yarmouk River, were attacked around 6 a.m. Saturday (11 a.m. in Manila).
But minutes after the attack, Irish peacekeepers on armed personnel carriers arrived to extricate the beleaguered Filipino troops through an escape route.
A few hours later, however, the Syrian rebels , including some linked to the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, attacked Position 68, manned by 40 Filipino peacekeepers.
“The position 69 has already extricated, and only position 68 is now under attack,” Gazmin said in a text message to military reporters.
“There was a firefight but I would like to assure everyone that our troops are safe at the moment,” said Armed Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, adding that negotiations with the rebels are underway to give the besieged Filipinos safe passage.
The peacekeepers were besieged by rebels on Thursday but defied demands that they give up their weapons. On Friday Syrian fighters took 43 Fijian soldiers hostage on the Golan Heights.
According to Palace spokesperson Abigail Valte, President Benigno S. Aquino III is closely watching the situation in the Golan Heights.
“The Armed Forces of the Philippines is in direct communication with the peacekeepers and with the UN Force Headquarters in Golan Heights, and are trying to resolve the situation peacefully,” Valte said in a statement over dzRB Radyo Ng Bayan.
Valte said the government has contingency measures but they will leave it to the AFP to make a public announcement.
Meanwhile, Defense Undersecretary Natalio Ecarma, himself a former Marine major general who also served as a peacekeeper for the UN, said another group of 54 Filipino peacekeepers in Position 60 were pulled out to preempt another standoff.
“The situation now is getting more and more dangerous, Ecarma said. “We are willing to help keep the peace but not to the extent of risking their life.”
Asked how the soldiers should respond to imminent danger, Ecarma said it is natural for peacekeepers to defend themselves.
“We cannot go on the offensive because they are peacekeeping forces. What they are hoping for, the style of UN Disengagement Observer Force, is to negotiate not to confront in such a situation,” he said. “Unless the lives of the peacekeepers are at stake.”
The Syrian rebels stormed a Golan Heights crossing on Wednesday, sparking an exchange of gunfire with Israeli troops.
The rebels then captured 44 Fijian members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Syrian side on Thursday, forcing them to surrender their weapons and taking them hostage.
The rebels then used an English-speaking Fijian hostage to relay their demand to the Filipino peacekeepers to give up their weapons, but the Filipinos refused and said they will use deadly force to protect the UN facility.
In New York, UN officials have received assurances that the 44 peacekeepers from Fiki who were detained by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights are safe and in good health, a UN spokesman said Friday.
The United Nations did not say whether the 44 Fijian soldiers had been released, but a statement suggested progress was being made in negotiations to secure their freedom.
“The United Nations has received assurances from credible sources that 44 peacekeepers from UNDOF who were taken from their position... are safe and in good health,” said a statement from the spokesman.
“UNDOF has not yet had direct contact with the peacekeepers.”
It added that UNDOF officials had been “informed that the intention of those holding the peacekeepers was to remove them from an active battlefield to a safe area for their own protection.”
UNDOF has been in “regular contact” with 72 Filipino peacekeepers who were surrounded by the rebels on Thursday and who had refused to disarm. They too “have not been harmed and are in good health,” he added.
The UN revised an earlier figure from 43 to 44 Fijians and from 75 to 72 Filipinos after checking leave records with the mission.
UN officials have been negotiating to secure the release of the blue helmets with the armed groups and countries that may have influence over them.
The UN Security Council has demanded the “unconditional and immediate release” of the peacekeepers and urged countries with influence to help win their release.
There are currently 1,200 peacekeepers serving in UNDOF from the Philippines, Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands. With AFP
COMMENT DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted on this Web site are not in any way endorsed by Manila Standard. Comments are views by manilastandard.net readers who exercise their right to free expression and they do not necessarily represent or reflect the position or viewpoint of manilastandard.net. While reserving this publication’s right to delete comments that are deemed offensive, indecent or inconsistent with Manila Standard editorial standards, Manila Standard may not be held liable for any false information posted by readers in this comments section.