MANILA – President Benigno Aquino III on Wednesday welcomed members of the Philippine contingent to the Golan Heights who engaged Syrian rebels in a standoff last August.
In his speech in Malacañang, Aquino honored the troops and staff under the 7th Philippine Contingent to the Golan Heights for the courage they showed in the face of threats.
Some of the Filipino troops, who were part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, had traded fire last August with Al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels who wanted them to surrender their weapons. The Filipino troops defied their commander, avoiding being held hostage by the rebels.
Aquino said the troops did the right thing since laying down their arms would have put their lives at risk.
''Kapag tayo ay ginawang hostage, lalong magiging komplikado ang problema, at limitado ang kakayahan natin na magpadala ng rescue force dito at ating pinanindigan ito,'' Aquino told 271 of the total 344 troops present in Malacañang.
The President noted that prior to the standoff, the Philippines had decided to pull out its contigent from the Golan Heights due to the changing security environment in the area.
''Sa totoo lang, mga two weeks bago nangyari ang standoff, nagkaroon na ng desisyon…na tapusin na ang obligasyong pinasukan at umuwi na, dahil nga ho hindi maliwanag ang misyong ibinigay sa atin, at tila ang misyon na ito ay dadalin kayo sa isang 'mission impossible,''' he said.
''May risk, pero dapat ang risk, kaalinsunod sa pagkakaroon ng misyon na kayang gampanan, at hindi mission impossible."
The Philippines has no plans yet to send fresh troops to the region. President Aquino said the Philippines will wait for the result of the UN investigation into the Golan standoff before deciding on its next step.
Aquino also congratulated the Filipino troops for surpassing the challenge.
"[Dahil] sa kalidad ng inyong pamumuno at pagsasanay, nagampanan niyo ang tungkulin, maski nagbago [ang sitwasyon] at limitado ang ating resources at kakayanan,'' he said.
Despite the pullout of troops from Golan, Aquino said it is still in the interest of the Philippines to remain committed to sending troops in troubled regions in the world, noting that an estimated 10 million Filipinos are scattered across the globe.
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 about 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.
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. – with Agence France-Presse