Filipino peacekeepers defied UN order to surrender in Syria

Filipino peacekeepers defied UN order to surrender in Syria
In this handout photo taken on October 2013 and released by Philippine Armed Forces public affairs office on August 29, 2014 shows officers and men of the 7th Philippine peacekeeping force bound for the Golan Heights posing for photos during their send-off ceremony at the army heradquarters in Manila. Heavily armed Philippine peacekeepers defied Syrian rebels on August 29 in a Golan Heights standoff hours after the gunmen disarmed and took hostage 43 Fijian soldiers there, Filipino authorities said.

MANILA, Philippines - The 40 Filipino peacekeepers who escaped a massacre on the Golan Heights early on Sunday defied an order from the United Nations ground commander to surrender their firearms, deciding instead to fight the Syrian rebels before fleeing their besieged camp, the military said on Monday.

Armed Forces of the Philipines Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang defended the decision of Capt. Nilo Ramones, the Filipino ground commander, to defy a valid order from the United Nation Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) commander to the peacekeepers to wave the white flag and surrender their weapons while negotiations for the release of 44 captured Fijian peacekeepers were going on.

Ramones cleared his decision with defence and military officials who were monitoring the crisis from Manila, Catapang said.

Catapang said the Undof commander gave vague and inconsistent orders to the peacekeepers, prompting Ramones to call Manila for consultations.

The military chief said Undof's rules were not clear about the authority of the force's commander to order peacekeepers to surrender.

"The Undof commander wanted to save the Fijians at the expense of the Filipino peacekeepers. But it's not our fault that the Fijians were taken hostage," Catapang said.

"What I mean is, our commander [wanted to] save the Filipinos first and then we would help the Fijians later," he said.

Catapang said there was no assurance that the Filipino peacekeepers would not end up as hostages, too.

Muntinlupa Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, a former AFP chief of staff, asked the House of Representatives on Monday to investigate the Golan Heights standoff to determine when UN peacekeepers could use force in self-defence.

"Although the incident turned out well for our peacekeepers, there are matters [that] should be looked into in order to come up with remedial measures or legislation to ensure their safety and security," Biazon said in introducing House Resolution No. 1429 seeking an inquiry into the standoff in aid of legislation.

Al-Qaida-linked rebels

The Syrian rebels, believed to be from the al-Qaida-linked Nustra Front fighting the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria, spilled into the buffer zone between Israel and Syria on Wednesday last week and surrounded Undof Area Position 27 manned by the Fijians on the Syrian side of the armistice line.

The rebels demanded the peacekeepers surrender their weapons. The Fijians turned in their firearms then were seized by the rebels.

After seizing the Fijians, the rebels laid siege on Area Position 68, manned by 40 Filipino peacekeepers, and Area Position 69, held by 32 Filipino Blue Helmets on the Syrian side of the UN-controlled zone.

Standoff with rebels

The rebels demanded that the Filipinos hand over their weapons, but the peacekeepers refused and stood their ground, triggering a standoff.

At 6 a.m. on Saturday (noon in Manila), the rebels attacked Area Position 69. With help from Syrian troops and Irish peacekeepers, the Filipinos fought back then fled to safety on the Israeli side of the armistice line.

The rebels also opened fire on Area Position 68, prompting the Filipinos to return fire. They battled the rebels for seven hours, the military said.

The rebels called in reinforcements, but Syrian troops gave the Filipinos a hand by firing artillery rounds from a distance to weaken the siege.

Night fell and the rebels, unable to bear the low nighttime temperatures on the Golan Heights, retired to houses in the area.

The Filipinos seized the opportunity and slipped out of their camp at midnight carrying their weapons. They reached the Israeli side of the territory at 1:40 a.m. (about 5 a.m. in Manila) on Sunday.

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