MANILA, Philippines (4th UPDATE) – A firefight erupted between a group of Filipino peacekeepers and Syrian rebels, Philippine military chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr confirmed to Rappler Saturday afternoon, August 30.
This involves Position 68 where about 40 troops are deployed. The firefight erupted at 6 am on Saturday in Syria (11 am Manila time).
“There was a firefight but I’d like to assure everyone that our troops are safe at the moment,” Philippine military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told reporters 5pm on Saturday. He refused to elaborate.
“We are focusing on the safety of the troops,” Zagala added.
The firefight was still ongoing as of 3 pm (8pm in Manila), according to the latest update of a source.
The other group of about 35 troops in Position 69 – located 4 kilometers away – was able to extricate, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin also told reporters.
On Friday afternoon, a third group of 58 Filipino peacekeepers were ordered to leave their posts in Position 60 located in the northern part of Golan to consolidate in the UNDOF headquarters in Camp Faouar. (READ: 58 Filipino peacekeepers leave post in Golan)
There are over 300 Filipino peacekeepers in 5 posts in Golan Heights. There is no available update on the other positions.
Catapang was supposed to hold a press conference at 4 pm to apprise the media on the latest developments. It was cancelled.
Zagala said negotions are still ongoing. (READ: UN in ‘backchannel’ talks to end standoff)
Around the time the firefight had reportedly begun, Malacañang said that President Benigno S. Aquino III was closely watching the situation in the Golan Heights and that there are “contingency plans” should the situation escalate.
Asked if the government has contingency plans in case the situation in the Golan Heights worsens, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte said in an interview on state-run Radyo ng Bayan, “We have contingency plans but we would leave it to the AFP to speak on the next possible next steps.”
The peacekeepers in Golan Heights belong to the 80th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army, a group of soldiers in their 20s holding ranks of Private First Class or Corporal led by Colonel Ezra Enriquez and Lieutenant Colonel Ted Dumusmog, contigent commander and commander of the Philippine Battalion, respectively.
Colonel Roberto Ancan, commander of the Philipine military’s peacekeeping operations center based in Camp O’Donnel in Tarlac, assured of the readiness of the troops to defend their posts.
He said the troops are in a “well fortified” position. They are also well-armed and well-trained, equipped with M4 assault rifles, M60 light machineguns, K3 squad automatic weapons, and Cal. 45 pistols.
Prior to their deployment to Golan in November 2013, the entire battalion went through the Army’s Battalion of Excellence (BOE) program. They were plucked out of their operational area in Mindoro – where they fought communist insurgents – to undergo months-long rigorous retraining in Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija. They got new firearms, too. (READ: Filipino peacekeepers in Golan: A battalion of excellence)
On Thursday, August 28, Syrian rebels surrounded the encampments of a total of 75 Filipino peacekeepers in two UN posts located at the central part of Golan Heights. The rebels demanded that they surrender their firearms but the Filipino troops stood their ground, refusing to meet the fate of their fellow Fijian peacekeepers who were taken hostage after they surrendered their firearms.
The incident happens as the Philippines is finalizing the pullout of Filipino peacekeepers in Golan Heights. Their tour of duty ends in October and no fresh troops will be deployed. – Rappler.com