Gazmin: Syrian rebels attack peacekeepers in Golan Heights

DEFENSE Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Saturday said Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights have been attacked by Syrian rebels, who are holding dozens of Fijian troops hostage.

Gazmin told reporters on Saturday in a series of text messages that Filipino troops manning one United Nations (UN) encampment have been “extricated,” while soldiers in another encampment were “now under attack.”

He said the attack started early Saturday Syrian time.

Gazmin did not say whether there were any casualties. Asked how the troops were doing, he said they had “high morale.”

The Syrian rebels have seized 44 Fijian peacekeepers, and demanded that the 75 Filipinos manning two separate UN encampments surrender their weapons, but the Filipino troops refused.

Syrian rebels attacked the Filipino peacekeepers after negotiations with the rebels bogged down.

“Those in Position 69 have already extricated, and only Position 68 is now under attack,” said Gazmin in a text message to reporters.

Gazmin said the attack happened at about 11 a.m. Philippine time (6 a.m. in Syria).

Asked to clarify if the word “under attack” meant the soldiers are engaging the rebels in a firefight, Gazmin answered “yes.”

Position 68, or UN Encampment 68, which is being manned by 40 Filipino peacekeepers at the border of Syria and Israel and is just about 4 kilometers away from Encampment 69, was surrounded by rebels at around 3 p.m. Manila time on Thursday.

Also on Saturday, Maj. Gen. Domingo Tutaan, Armed Forces spokesman, said that the rebels wanted to storm the two positions of the Filipino soldiers after overrunning the position of Fijian soldiers, who were, likewise, in the Golan Heights on peacekeeping mission.

The rebels took the firearms of the 43 Fijian soldiers before they took them hostage.

All in all, 75 Filipino soldiers were manning the two UN encampments—40 in Position 68 and 35 in Position 69, but Gazmin’s message that the peacekeepers manning Encampment 69 have already been extricated may mean that only the 40 other soldiers were being attacked.

The firefight came amid the assurance earlier of Tutaan that that UN and other officials were working to find solutions, including a de-escalation of the situation, although the soldiers “were prepared to defend their positions.”

The Filipino peacekeepers were part of the multinational force serving as members of the UN Disengagement Observation Force in the Golan Heights, a border area between Israel and Syria, but whose bigger portion was secured by Israel during its previous war with Syria.

Peacekeepers from other countries have earlier withdrawn from the area due to threats from Syrian rebels, who have been battling to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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 owing to the same reason.

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 were armed with M-4 carbines, squad automatic weapons and even machine guns, but which may pale, however, when compared with the armaments of the Syrian rebels, who have been engaging the Syrian military since 2011. Rene Acosta with AP