Other Filipino peacekeepers pulled out amid stand-off

by Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 29 2014 10:45 PM | Updated as of Aug 30 2014 06:50 AM

MANILA - Filipino peacekeepers in a separate United Nations station in the Golan Heights have been pulled out amid the standoff between their compatriots and Syrian militants in Israeli-occupied area, the Philippine military said Friday night.

In an advisory, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said Filipino peacekeepers at Station 60 were ordered to return to the battalion headquarters in Camp Faouar.

"This is a security measure, as the Filipinos in stations 68 and 69 are still in a standoff with Syrian rebels," the military said.

The Filipino peacekeepers and Syrian militants surrounding them have not engaged in a firefight, while UN officials try defuse situation, Armed AFP spokesperson Maj. Gen. Domingo Tutaan said Friday.

Militants fighting the Syrian army have detained 43 UN peacekeepers from Fiji in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and trapped 81 troops from the Philippines.

The 43 troops from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were detained in the vicinity of Al Qunaytirah and the 81 peacekeepers from the Philippines have been restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah, the UN said.

Tutaan said the rebels were not attacking the Filipino peacekeepers' positions at this time.

"So there was no firefight. There was no direct contact or engagement with the anti-government armed elements of Syria and our forces in the area," Tutaan said.

The United Nations said this week that the Philippines has decided to pull out of UNDOF, and from a UN force in Liberia, which is struggling with an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

UN troops from the Philippines were seized by militants in March 2013, and were released safely. However, unlike the last time when the Filipino troops were unarmed, this time they are in fortified positions and armed with light machine guns and assault rifles, the Philippine military said.

"Our people are in a well-defensive mode unlike what happened last year. And they have their own personal protective equipment. What I mean is they have their vest, they have their kevlars, and in those positions they also close-circuit TV camera that can oversee the soldiers," said Col. Roberto Ancan, commander of Philippine peacekeeping operations.

Ancan said the Filipino peacekeepers are well-trained.

UN officials said 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.

Ancan said they are in contact with the Philippine battalion headquarters in the area, and are hopeful that United Nations efforts to secure the peacekeepers' safety and de-escalate the situation will be effective.

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.

Austria, Japan and Croatia have all pulled their troops out of UNDOF due to the deteriorating security situation and spillover from the Syrian war. - with a report from Reuters