MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine military expressed confidence there would be a “de-escalation” of the situation in Golan Heights, where 75 Filipino peacekeepers are in a standoff with Syrian rebels.
“The Philippine government and UN officials are already trying to peacefully resolve the situation. The potential for the de-escalation of the situation is still positive,” military spokesman Major General Domingo Tutaan Jr said Friday, August 29.
The Filipino troops however are committed to defend their command posts as the United Nations (UN) and the Philippine government are drawing options for contingency plans. Tutaan stressed they have a right to defend their position in line with UN protocols and rules of engagement.
“They have been directed to stand their ground in the area…. Our soldiers are prepared, trained, and capable of dealing with these situations and will take risks to fulfill our commitment to internal security and peace,” said Tutaan.
The standoff has been ongoing for about 24 hours. There has been no firefight.
‘Well fortified position’
Colonel Roberto Ancan, commander of the Philipine military’s peacekeeping operations center based in Camp O’Donnel in Tarlac, said the safety and security of soldiers remain the “paramount concern.”
He gave assurances the Filipinos are in a “well fortified” position to defend the posts.
They are also well-armed and well-trained, he said. They are equipped with M4 assault rifles, M60 light machineguns, K3 squad automatic weapons, and Cal. 45 pistols.
“They know the risks they have to face as soldiers. They are professional soldiers. It’s just part of the job. They are committed,” Ancan told reporters.
The Philippine military is in “direct communication” with the peacekeepers. Ancan said their families are aware of the situation.
Syrian rebels surrounded the two encampments of Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights at 10 am, Syrian time, on Thursday, August 28. Position 68 has 40 troops while Position 69, which is 4 kilomters away, has 35 troops. Speaking through their English-speaking Fijian hostages, the Syrian rebels ordered the Filipino troops to surrender their firearms. They refused.
The Filipino troops were concerned they will be taken hostage like the Fijian peacekeepers who surrendered their firearms, officials said.
Last year, Syrian rebels abducted unarmed Filipino peacekeepers in two separate incidents. Filipinos patrolling the area of separation do not carry their firearms.
This time, the Syrian rebels trooped to their encampment. Ancan said this means the Filipinos are in a better position to defend themselves because they have their weapons, CCTV, and other equipment.
“Our people are on a well defensive mode unlike what happened last year. They have their own protective equipment., vests, and kevlars. In those positions, there are CCTV that can help them,” Ancan said.
The UN previously said there were 81 Filipino peacekeepers in the area.
In 2009, the Philippines started to deploy peacekeepers to the Golan Heights, which straddles the borders of warring Syria and Israel. The task of the peacekeepers is to “maintain the ceasefire and supervise the agreement and protocol with regard to the area of separation and area of limitation.” But the situation changed when the internal conflict in Syria erupted in 2011.
The Philippines is one of 6 troop-contributing countries. The others are Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, and the Netherlands. All the peacekeepers there are currently led by an Indian military officer serving as force commander in the area.
The Philippines last week decided to pull out its troops given the deteriorating situation in Syria.
After the kidnappings last year, the Philippines already considered pulling out its Golan peacekeepers but was convinced by the UN to stay inspite of continued withdrawal of countries like Australia, Croatia and Japan. – Rappler.com