MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines still expects its 21 UN peacekeepers held hostage in the Golan to be freed despite shelling by Syrian forces that scuttled a handover, a military spokesman said Saturday, March 9.
A UN convoy that entered the Syrian village of Jamla on Friday, March 8, to pick up the Filipinos abducted by rebels pulled out when the Syrian army shelled the area, according to a human rights watchdog.
Philippine Army spokesman Col Randolph Cabangbang said in Manila that the shelling had since stopped and the UN negotiators had resumed planning another arrangement with the rebels for the hostage handover.
“After the shelling the two parties (UN and the rebels) resumed coordinating the arrangements for their release,” Cabangbang told AFP.
“The planned venue of the handover was not actually shelled. It was the route that they planned to take.”
The negotiators from the UN Disengagement Observer Force had no reason to believe that any of the hostages, who were abducted on Wednesday, were harmed by the shelling, Cabangbang added.
He said the force believed the rebels remained committed to freeing the hostages. However, Cabangbang he said he had no details on the new arrangement.
The UN force has been tasked since 1974 with ensuring a ceasefire between Israel and Syria, and the hostages are part of a 300-member Philippine Army force deployed there since November last year.
The Philippines has sent nearly 1,000 peacekeepers in various conflict areas around the world including Haiti, East Timor, Cambodia for a while, and Golan Heights, according to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.
On Wednesday, March 6, the rebel Yarmuk Martyrs brigade claimed the capture of the Filipino soldiers.
The rebels said they would hold them until troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad withdrew from the area of Jamla, which lies east of the ceasefire line.
On Friday, the rebels called for a ceasefire, to allow the evacuation of the peacekeepers.
In a statement, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon earlier called for the “immediate” release of the hostages and demanded that the Syrian government and rebels respect “UNDOF’s freedom of movement and security.”
There has been fierce fighting recently around Jamlah village, which is held by opposition forces.
The UN said over 70,000 people have been killed and the number of refugees has reached the 1 million mark since the uprising against Assad’s rule broke out in March 2011. – Rappler.com