UN chief's Golan report silent on order to surrender firearms

UNITED NATIONS – The head of the United Nations detailed the events behind the standoff between Syrian rebels and Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights but did not discuss the dispute on the order for the troops to surrender their arms.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon reported to the UN Security Council that armed groups including the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front demanded on August 28 that the Filipino peacekeepers give up their weapons “in order for the 45 detained [Fijian] peacekeepers to be released.”

In the report dated September 12 obtained by Rappler, Ban did not say whether or not the peacekeeping mission’s Indian commander Lieutenant General Iqbal Singh Singha ordered the Filipinos to heed the rebels’ demand to give up their arms.

“When the United Nations personnel did not hand over their weapons, the armed members placed command-detonated explosive devices around the two positions to prevent the United Nations personnel from leaving, and threatened to attack their positions,” said Ban.

The UN chief said that the situation turned violent on August 30 when a firefight ensued. His account of the events was similar to that of Philippine military chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr but left out the issue on the surrender order. 

“Armed elements detonated at least one explosive they had placed outside the gate of position 68 and began attacking the position. United Nations personnel at the position fired in return. The exchange lasted for several hours,” Ban said.  

Ban’s 15-page regular report describes the situation in the Golan Heights during the past 3 months, which covers the period of the standoff and the detention of the 45 Fijian peacekeepers. 

The standoff stirred controversy after the Philippines revealed that its peacekeepers defied Singha’s order to surrender their weapons. Instead, they hatched what Catapang called "the greatest escape," taking orders from commanders in Manila.

The UN’s head of peacekeeping operations has denied the Filipinos’ statement, saying Singha only ordered them “not to shoot.”

The release of the report came after Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario wrote Ban requesting for a review of “operational and tactical issues” including the safety and security of peacekeepers during kidnapping and siege incidents.

The UN Security Council met in a closed-door session on Wednesday to discuss Ban’s report and the deteriorating security situation in the Golan Heights that led the UN to pull out its troops from the Syrian side this week. The Council is the UN organ tasked to set and renew the mandate of peacekeeping missions. 

“The situation on the ground is extremely complex.  And we're supporting the Force Commander as he carries out the necessary work to make sure that basically the peacekeepers are able to do their mandated tasks as capably and as securely as they can,” said Ban’s Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq on Wednesday, September 17.

At the conclusion of his report, Ban also thanked Singha and his personnel for continuing to perform their tasks “with efficiency and commitment.”

The mission known as the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) is tasked with monitoring the 1974 ceasefire between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights. This mandate became increasingly challenging and complex with the spillover of violence from the Syrian civil war.

Fijians ordered ‘to vacate position’

Ban also recounted the events that led to the abduction of the Fijian peacekeepers. He said Singha ordered them to vacate their position.

The incident began on August 27 when Al-Nusra gained control of the strategic Quneitra border crossing from UNDOF. Ban said armed groups attacked several UNDOF positions, looting UN equipment and vehicles. The rebels even wore the UN uniforms and blue berets.

On August 28, armed fighters demanded that the Fijian peacekeepers leave their position and vehicles behind. According to Ban, the armed groups told the Fijians that they will be moved to the Alpha gate in the Israeli-occupied Golan. Ban said 300 armed men were seen near the peacekeeping position.

“UNDOF readied the Force Reserve for possible relocation of the United Nations personnel; however, the position personnel were given a 10-minute deadline by the armed elements to move out. The Force Commander therefore gave orders for the United Nations personnel to vacate the position.”

Yet instead of allowing the Fijians to cross to the Alpha side, the armed groups took them “elsewhere.” They were released only after two weeks of captivity.

Growing threats to peacekeepers

Ban said the situation in the Golan Heights is “evolving rapidly and remains volatile” but recommended that UNDOF continue carrying out its “important mandate.”

According to Ban’s report, the following are the threats peacekeepers faced in the Golan from May 29 to September 3:

UNDOF is the only armed force allowed in the so-called area of separation but Ban said both the Syrian army and rebels have been violating this agreement.

Ban said, “The placing of improvised explosive devices by armed groups, especially close to and on access routes to United Nations positions, remains of great concern. It exposes United Nations peacekeepers on the ground to further risk.”

“It is essential that UNDOF continue to have at its disposal all necessary means and resources, particularly in the light of the volatile security environment. UNDOF also needs to retain the confidence and commitment of troop-contributing countries.”

As of September 2, UNDOF comprises of 1,271 troops from the Philippines, Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands. 

Manila is pulling out its 344 troops due to security concerns and the abduction of its peacekeepers in two separate incidents in 2013. – Rappler.com