FILIPINO peacekeepers in Golan Heights are in a standoff with Syrian rebels who wanted to storm their two positions in the area separating Israel and Syria, military officials said on Friday.
Armed Forces Spokesman Maj.Domingo Tutaan said the United Nations and other officials are working to find solutions, including a de-escalation of the situation, although the soldiers are prepared to defend their positions.
The Syrian rebels, part of the various militant groups battling to topple the besieged government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, moved into the positions of Filipino troops holed out at “position 68” and “position 69” after overrunning the position of Fijian soldiers, who were likewise in Golan Heights doing peacekeeping mission.
The rebels took the firearms of the 43 Fijian soldiers before taking them as hostages.
“The Syrian rebels also surrounded the encampments of the Philippine contingent. Our peacekeeping forces are holding their ground to defend their respective positions. This resulted in a standoff, which is still prevailing,” Tutaan said.
“The Philippine government and UN officials are already trying to peacefully resolve the situation. Potential for the deescalation of the situation is still positive,” he added during a press briefing on Friday.
The Filipino peacekeepers are part of the multinational force serving as members of the United Nations Disengagement Observation Force (Undof) in Golan Heights, a border area between Israel and Syria, but whose bigger portion was secured by Israel during its previous war with Syria.
Other peacekeepers from other countries have earlier withdrawn from the area due to threats from Syrian rebels, who escalated their conflict with the Syrian government.
The standoff came just two months before the Filipino soldiers would come home, and it came in the aftermath of the government’s decision not to deploy another contingent, basically due to the same reasons.
Tutaan said the Filipino peacekeepers are taking their commands from an Indian senior military official, who is the commander of the Undof.
The trouble for the Filipino soldiers began at around 10 a.m. on Thursday (or around 3 p.m., Manila time) after they were surrounded by the rebels, who overwhelmed the position of their peacekeeper colleagues from Fiji.
Tutaan said the rebels wanted to storm position 68, where the 40 peacekeepers are holed out, and another encampment, position 69, which is being guarded by another 35 soldiers.
“The Armed Forces of the Philippines has already expressed its concern for the safety of the Filipino soldiers, as well as the hostaged Fijian peacekeepers. Our soldiers are prepared, trained and capable of dealing with this situations and will take risks to fulfill our commitment to international security and peace,” Tutaan said.
“We will exert all effort to ensure the safety and security of our peacekeepers. The families of our soldiers are already aware of the situation and are in close coordination with our peacekeeping
office,” he added.
Col. Roberto Ancan, commander of the military’s peacekeeping operations center, said the soldiers are ready to defend their positions.
“I just like to emphasize that our troops are well-armed, they are well-trained before their deployment. They are well-disciplined warrior peacekeepers,” he said.
Tutaan said the soldiers are armed with M-4 assault rifles, Squad Automatic Weapons and even machineguns.
The weapons may, however, pale in comparison with the armaments of the Syrian rebels, who have been battling the Syrian government since 2011, and who overran the last Syrian military base leading to the Golan Heights just days ago.
“Our government, including our foreign missions in that region and at the UN headquarters in New York, is closely monitoring developments and is coordinating with both the UN and concerned foreign governments to help bring about a peaceful resolution of this crisis,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said.
Rene Acosta with Recto Mercene