MANILA (1st UPDATE) – The United Nations (UN) is standing by the commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in Golan Heights, saying the latter never ordered Filipino peacekeepers to surrender their firearms to Syrian rebels who engaged them in a standoff.
In a press briefing in New York on Wednesday, Hervé Ladsous, UN Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, belied the claims of the Filipino peacekeepers that they were ordered by their commander, Lt. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha, to surrender their arms to the rebels last week.
Asked what order was given to the Filipinos, Ladsous replied, "Never to hand over weapons."
The order was simply "not to shoot," he said.
One U.N. official also told Reuters that no force commander would order his troops to hand over weapons to rebels. If that were to happen, the official said, the commander would "be out of a job" since countries that supply weapons and materiel to the force would be reluctant to re-supply the mission.
Several Security Council diplomats said the issue of what orders might have been given was discussed on Wednesday in a closed-door meeting of the 15-nation body.
In that meeting, Ladsous expressed full support for Singha, diplomats who were present told Reuters.
"They were never under such specific orders. You would realize that the situation on the ground is a fast-moving one. There is time for decisive action that was in particular the decision to engage a quick reaction force to extract people," Ladsous later said in the press briefing.
Ladsous added Singha ''has exercised good sound judgment all along that process."
''[There] are times when other considerations including about the safety of the people come in; and then you have to possibly refrain from proactive stands –that means some shooting back really- because that might put other people in danger. It's a matter of judgment,'' he said.
On August 28, Syrian rebels allegedly affiliated with al Qaeda attacked facilities in Golan Heights, trapping at least 72 Filipino peacekeepers. Prior to this, 45 Fijian peacekeepers were seized.
An initial group of 32 Filipino troops were picked up from their position by Irish UN soldiers in armored vehicles on Saturday, August 30.
The remaining 40 soldiers engaged in a "seven-hour firefight" with rebels who tried to ram the gates with pick-up trucks carrying anti-aircraft guns.
The 40 Filipino soldiers in Position 68, already low on ammunition, later managed to escape from the sleeping Syrian rebels, but not without passing through landmines, in what Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. would later dub as ''the greatest escape."
Catapang said he ordered the Filipino soldiers to defy the alleged order of Singha to surrender their arms to the rebels.
''I countermanded the order of the UNDOF commander who said that if we are attacked, we should surrender and raise the white flag,'' he said in an earlier interview.
Catapang dismissed the commander's alleged order saying, ''We will not do that. We won't be put to shame.'' He added that it appeared the Filipinos were being made to surrender in order to save the Fijians, who remain in detention.
Catapang said he is confident the Philippines did not commit any misconduct in allowing their soldiers to stage their escape. He said he knew the rules of engagement there since he was the one who was directed to set-up the Filipino delegation back in 2009.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin was also quoted as saying that the Filipino troops would have been ''massacred'' had they decided to yield to the rebels.
The Department of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, said it was working on the Philippine side's complaints against Singha in the UN.
Due to the disagreement between Singha and the Philippine military command, Colonel James Ezra Enriquez, Singha's chief of staff, tendered his resignation.
Singha, however, put Enriquez on administrative leave pending repatriation, according to Lt. Col Ramon Zagala, chief of the AFP Public Affairs Office.
On August 23, the Philippine Defense Department announced that it would withdraw the 331-strong Filipino contingent serving as part of the UNDOF in Golan Heights at the end of their tour of duty in October due to the worsening security situation.
The peacekeepers are serving with the UNDOF, which was deployed to monitor the 1974 accord between Syria and Israel after the 1973 war.
In March 2013, Syrian rebels held 21 Filipino UN peacekeepers for four days and then in May held four Filipino peacekeepers for five days before releasing them.
A Filipino peacekeeper was wounded by shrapnel on June 6, 2013 amid fighting between the rebels and Syrian forces.
Israel seized 1,200 square kilometers of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War, then annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community. – with reports from Agence France-Presse and Reuters; Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News