75 PH peacekeepers trapped in Golan Heights
The Philippine military on Friday said 75 Filipino peacekeepers in Golan Heights remain trapped in two separate camps after being surrounded by Syrian anti-government militants.
In a press briefing, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said the Filipino peacekeepers are holding their ground in positions 68 and 69 of the Golan Heights, which are about 4 kilometers apart.
There are 40 Filipino peacekeepers in the first encampment and 35 Filipino soldiers in the second encampment.
The Syrian militants first occupied the position of Fijian peacekeepers of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) Thursday morning and demanded that they surrender their firearms.
Forty-three Fijian peacekeepers were taken hostage by the rebels.
"The Syrian rebels also surrounded the encampments of the Philippine contingent. Our peacekeeping forces are holding their ground to defend their respective positions. This resulted in a stand-off which is still prevailing," the AFP said.
"Our soldiers are prepared, trained and capable of dealing with these situations and will take risks to fulfill our commitment to international security and peace."
Col. Roberto Ancan, commander of the AFP Peacekeeping Operation Center, said the rebels are demanding that the Filipino peacekeepers also lay down their firearms. He said the rebels used Fijian hostages to relay their demand to Filipino soldiers.
Ancan said the Philippine military remains confident Filipino soldiers can defend themselves in case of an attack.
"They have M4 assault rifles, M60 light machine guns, K3 squad automatic weapons and caliber 45 pistols as well as sufficient ammunition to defend themselves," he said.
AFP spokesperson Domingo Tutaan refused to say how many rebels have surrounded the camp of the Filipino peacekeepers.
He said the military and Department of National Defense are in direct coordination with the peacekeepers and the UN headquarters in Golan Heights as "options and contingency plans are being considered."
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"The safety and security of our peacekeepers remain to be our paramount concern," he said.
Meanwhile, President Aquino said he is going back to Manila from Mindoro Oriental to attend to the situation facing Filipino peacekeepers in Golan Heights.
He said though there is no serious threat right now, the situation remains tense.
"Meron tayong problema sa Golan Heights sa ating mga peacekeepers doon nadadamay sa civil war na nangyayari sa Syria. pero so far wag tayong kabahan mukhang stable yung sitwasyon," he said.
The United Nations Security Council has issued a statement strongly condemning the seizure of the peacekeepers and calling for their immediate release. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed the council word's in his own statement of condemnation.
UN officials say that the peacekeepers, whose job is to monitor the cessation of hostilities, carry small arms that are only to be used in extreme circumstances. In previous situations where UNDOF peacekeepers were held hostage, the troops did not use their weapons.
The Quneitra crossing on the Golan is a strategic plateau captured by Israel in a 1967 Middle East war. Syria and Israel technically remain at war. Syrian troops are not allowed in an area of separation under a 1973 ceasefire formalized in 1974.
UNDOF monitors the area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 45 miles (70 km) from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan. There are 1,223 UNDOF peacekeepers from six countries.
Before the Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year, the region was generally quiet and the peacekeepers had mostly found their biggest enemy to be boredom.
The force's personnel come from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.
The Philippines earlier announced that it will pull out of the peace force, citing security concerns.
Filipino defense officials said no fresh troops would be sent to serve in UNDOF once the current soldiers return from duty in October.
Last year, Manila also considered pulling its Golan peacekeepers out after 25 of them were kidnapped but later freed by Syrian rebels in two separate incidents.
A Filipino soldier was also wounded by a wayward shell last year.
With reports by Reuters and Agence France-Presse