UN in 'backchannel' talks to end Golan standoff
MANILA, Philippines – The standoff in Golan Heights between 75 Filipino peacekeepers and Syrian rebels marks its Day 2 as negotiation for the rebels to stand down continues.
"Negotiation is ongoing," Philippine military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said in an update at 6 pm on Friday, August 29.
The rebels surrounded at 10 am Thursday (3 pm Thursday in Manila) the encampments of Filipino peacekeepers in Golan Heights, a buffer zone separating Israel and Syria. The standoff began when Filipinos refused to give in to the rebels' demand to surrender their firearms, concerned that they will also be taken hostage like the 43 Fijian peacekeepers. (Editor's note: Wire agencies earlier put the number of Filipino troops at 81; the military clarified there are only 75)
The Philippine military said the troops will stand their ground to protect the UN facilities. (READ: Filipino peacekeepers in Golan to defend posts vs Syrian rebels)
Retired General Natalio Ecarma III, who served as Force Commander of the UN Observer Force in Golan Heights in 2010, gave an assurance that the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is leading backchannel talks with groups supporting the Syrian rebels.
"The UN system, the UN organization, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and his assistant secretaries are contacting – backchanneling – those who are supporting these rebel groups to talk to them and make them stand down and not continue threatening our peacekeepers," Ecarma, now undersecretary for defense, told reporters Friday afternoon.
Officials note some good signs. There has been no firefight inside the encampments of the Filipino troops inspite of their refusal to heed an earlier ultimatum to surrender their firearms.
"This may be a good indicator that they really do not mean what they say and we are hoping and praying that it will not escalate," said Ecarma. He did not elaborate.
Syrian rebels also abducted Filipino peacekeepers in two separate incidents last year. They were eventually released unharmed.
Officials believe that Syrians continue to appreciate the presence of peacekeepers in Golan Heights because they make sure that Israel troops do not cross over to the Syrian border and vice versa.
Ecarma believes the rebels are after the weapons of the Filipino peacekeepers.
"Most likely, what they want are the weapons, the provisions, and the ammunition," he said.
The incident happened as the Philippines finalized the pullout of over 300 peacekeepers in Golan because of escalating internal conflict in Syria. Their tour of duty ends in October and no fresh troops will be deployed. – Rappler.com