Aquino lauds Filipino peacekeepers, hits ‘unclear’ mission

Natashya Gutierrez
The next mission of the Philippine peacekeepers, hailed at home for their bravery at the Golan Heights, is to secure Pope Francis when he visits the Philippines in January 2015

HEROES' WELCOME. President Benigno Aquino III hosts a Heroes' Welcome in Malacañang for the Filipino peacekeepers who successfully escaped Syrian rebels. Malacañang Photo Bureau

MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III led a heroes’ welcome for the 330 Filipino peacekeepers assigned to the Golan Heights in Syria and praised them for their bravery, despite what he called  their “impossible or unclear mission.”

On Wednesday, October 1, Aquino opened the doors of Malacañang to the returning soldiers, whose next mission is to secure Pope Francis in his Philippine visit in January 2015.

In impromptu remarks, the President hailed them for successfully escaping the Syrian rebels who demanded that they surrender their firearms.

Talaga namang kinaya ‘nyo and mga kondisyon maski na limitado ang ating mga resources (You truly withstood the conditions despite our limited resources),” he said.

The President added: “Dahil doon, humahanga ang buong sambayanan: talagang ito ang buhay, kalidad, galing, tapang, husay ng ating sandatahang lakas. Talagang pinakita nyo ang gilas ng Pilipino. (Because of that, the whole country admires you: this is truly the life, quality, skill, courage, and competence of our armed forces).”

Despite the warm homecoming,  Aquino could not help but express his disappointment over what he said became an “impossible or unclear mission” for the Philippines peacekeepers in Golan.

He said the mission was to “separate the opposing forces of Israel and Syria” but the situation changed when the rebels kept on “popping up” at the area of disengagement.

The President conceded it may “not [be] the time for pointing fingers,” but said because of what happened, the government reassessed all the peacekeeping missions the Philippines is currently engaged in.

He also said the ongoing United Nations investigation on the incident will be “the basis of whether we will again participate” in peacekeeping activities in the Golan Heights.

“We cannot put our troops in a situation wherein the mission is impossible or not clear. What’s important are the lives of each one,” he said.

In late August, about 40 Filipino troops deployed to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were engaged in a tense stand-off with Al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels in Golan Heights. The same rebels had earlier taken hostage 44 Fijian peacekeepers before surrounding encampments of Filipino peacekeepers.

PROTECTING FILIPINOS. President Benigno Aquino III says troops should not be sent to missions that are unclear. Malacañang Photo Bureau

The soldiers refused to surrender their firearms despite the demands of rebels, triggering a standoff and a 7-hour intermittent firefight, before the peacekeepers escaped at midnight as the rebels slept. There were no casualties on the Philippine side.

The incident happened as the Philippine government was finalizing the pullout of troops in the Golan Heights, citing the escalating internal conflict.

Next mission: Pope Francis

The peacekeepers, who were deployed in November 2013, returned to the Philippines in two batches on September 19 and 21. The President cited 7 officers for their leadership during the Palace ceremony.

The troops’ next mission, Aquino announced, is to protect Pope Francis during his  January visit in 2015, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) dignitaries when they attend the Manila conference in 2015.

Contingent Commander Lieutenant Colonel Ted Dumusmog will lead the soldiers in their next mission.

Dumusmog said before they go on special training for the forthcoming mission, the peacekeepers will enjoy a 15-day vacation as they have yet to see their families since their return to the Philippines.

“Presently, we are conducting the organizing of our units. Definitely it will be a different mission and we are already preparing our training,” he said. “We are preparing ourselves; we are conditioning ourselves.”

Dumusmog said they have yet to receive specifics on the Pope’s itinerary or visit, which will guide their special training. He also said they will be in close coordination with the Philippine National Police (PNP) who will be supervising the Pope’s visit.

He admitted the mission will be “challenging,” as it is different from the combat missions they usually engage in. Dumusmog however, expressed confidence his troops would be able to meet the challenge well.

“[For] most of them, it will be the first time for them to see the Pope. They are very much excited.”

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