Peacekeepers escape after Syrian rebels’ siege

FILIPINO peacekeepers made a daring escape under the cover of darkness after being surrounded and under fire for seven hours by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights, Philippine officials yesterday revealed.

Part of the UN observer force on the Golan Heights; below, a Fijian peacekeeper. Picture: Reuters
Part of the UN observer force on the Golan Heights; below, a Fijian peacekeeper. Picture: Reuters

The move left 44 Fijian troops still in the hands of the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.

“We may call it the greatest escape,” Philippine military chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang said.

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The peacekeepers became trapped after Syrian rebels entered the UN-patrolled buffer zone between Syria and Israel this past week, seizing 44 Fijian soldiers and demanding that their Filipino colleagues surrender. The Filipinos, occupying two UN encampments, refused and fought the rebels on Saturday. The first group of 35 peacekeepers was then successfully escorted out of a UN encampment in Breiqa by Irish and Filipino forces in armoured vehicles.

The remaining 40 peacekeepers were besieged at the second encampment, called Rwihana, by more than 100 gunmen who rammed the camp’s gates with their trucks and fired mortar rounds. The Filipinos returned fire in self-defence, Philippine military officials said.

At one point, Syrian government forces fired artillery rounds from a distance to prevent the Filipino peacekeepers from being overwhelmed, said Colonel Roberto Ancan, a Philippine military official who helped monitor the tense standoff from the Philippine capital, Manila, and mobilize support for the besieged troops.

“Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground for seven hours,” Gen Catapang said in a news conference in Manila, adding that there were no Filipino casualties.

As night fell and a ceasefire took hold, the 40 Filipinos fled with their weapons, travelling across the chilly hills for nearly two hours before meeting up with other UN forces, who escorted them to safety.

“If they held their ground, they could have been massacred because they were already running low on ammunition,” defence secretary Voltaire Gazmin said. “So we discussed with them the option of escape and evasion.”

In New York, the UN’s Disengagement Observer Force, (UNDOF), whose mission is to monitor a 1974 disengagement in the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria, reported that shortly after midnight local time, during a ceasefire agreed with the armed elements, all 40 Filipino peacekeepers left their position and “arrived in a safe location one hour later.”

Another group of 32 Filipino troops that had been trapped at a nearby encampment were extracted on Saturday morning with the help of Irish peacekeepers, the UN said.

The clashes erupted after Syrian rebel groups – including al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front – overran the Quneitra crossing on the frontier between Syrian- and Israeli-controlled parts of the Golan on Wednesday. A day later, Nusra Front fighters seized 44 Fijian peacekeepers.

In a statement posted on militant websites yesterday, the Nusra Front confirmed that it had seized the Fijians, and posted a photo showing what it said were the captured Fijians in their military uniforms along with 45 identification cards.

The UN mission has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines. A number of countries have withdrawn their peacekeepers due to the escalating violence.