Filipino peacekeepers in Golan escape after firefight

A member of the United Nations Disengagement Force uses binoculars to monitor the Syrian side of the Golan Heights on August 30, 2014. Syrian rebels took control of the Quinetra checkpoint between the two countries and had engaged Philippine UN Peacekeepers in a firefight, according to Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.

MANILA  — Filipino peacekeepers attacked by Syrian rebels managed to escape safely several hours after seven hours of fighting, the military announced on Sunday.

Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr. in a press conference at Camp Aguinaldo, called it “the greatest escape.”

“Although [the troops] were outnumbered, we escaped from the rebels in the middle of the night while they were still sleeping,” Catapang said.

This was Catapang’s first crisis to face as chief of staff since he assumed office in July.

The peacekeepers escaped about 12 midnight Syrian time (5 a.m. Sunday in Manila) with their equipment and weapons. After seven hours of fighting, there was a ceasefire and the peacekeepers found a chance to escape while the rebels were sleeping. They walked for about two kilometers in almost two hours where troops from Position 80 were waiting to rescue them.

Syrian rebels, which included Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front, attacked Positions 68 and 69 on Saturday at 6a.m. Syrian time (11 a.m. Manila time). Those on Position 69 were “extricated” shortly after but those on Position 68, with 40 Filipino peacekeepers, engaged in a firefight for seven hours.

The 40 peacekeepers, with 38 enlisted personnel and two officers, fought about 100 rebels. The military was still trying to confirm if there were casualties on the rebels’ side.

“There were no casualties from our troops,” Catapang said.

On Thursday, Syrian rebels abducted 43 Fijian peacekeepers after demanding to surrender their firearms. They tried to do the same with 72 Filipino peacekeepers in Positions 68 and 69 but they resisted to give up their firearms, which led to a standoff.

Colonel Roberto Ancan, commander of the AFP peacekeeping operations center, said the rebels rammed the gate of Position 68 with three pickup trucks, ZPU, an anti aircraft [machine gun].

“The rebels attacked Position 68 first and only went to Position 69 after an hour but they were able to move immediately,” he said.

Syria also provided fire support during the fighting, which “eased the tensions” and prevented the rebels from getting closer to the troops.

Role of Irish peacekeepers 

Ancan also confirmed the report of an Irish publication that said peacekeepers from Ireland helped troops in Position 69 on Saturday.

“They have an armored personnel carrier but we were part of their escorts,” he said.

“There was a firefight but it didn’t last long because we had the [APC],” he added.

Filipino peacekeepers from Positions 68 and 69 have been successfully repositioned to Camp Ziouani as of posting time. The US, Qatar and Israel also helped in the situation, the military said, but did not elaborate.

Top defense and military officials convened at Camp Aguinaldo to monitor the situation in Golan Heights around 10a.m. on Saturday and finished at Sunday 7a.m.

Catapang said the peacekeepers will still finish their tour of duty until October.