The Philippines remains committed to deploying troops in UN peacekeeping hotspots despite the brief capture of 21 Filipino soldiers, who were welcomed back to freedom in Jordan with a traditional military feast, Philippine military officials said yesterday.
The unarmed Philippine peacekeepers, who were riding in trucks, were abducted after providing water and food to other troops on Wednesday in southern Syria, near the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, by one of the rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. After negotiations, they were freed on Saturday on Jordan’s border and taken to a hotel in Amman, Philippine officials said.
At the Amman hotel, the peacekeepers, who were treated well by the rebels, were welcomed with a “boodle fight” — a military mess hall style of eating, where food is laid usually on banana leaves atop a long table and soldiers eat with their hands, said Philippine Army Colonel Roberto Arcan, who heads the military’s peacekeeping operations center in Manila.
Arcan said he talked on the telephone with one of the freed peacekeepers, Philippine Army Major Dominador Valerio, who remained in high spirits despite the four-day ordeal.
“Please tell my wife I’m OK,” Arcan quoted Valerio as saying, adding that he relayed the good news to the army officer’s wife.
Prior to last week’s hostage-taking, a Philippine Army major and his driver were briefly held at a checkpoint in the Golan Heights by anti-al-Assad forces in January last year, but released about four hours later, Arcan told reporters.
The freed peacekeepers from a 326-member Philippine contingent in the Golan Heights are part of a UN mission known as UNDOF that was set up to monitor a ceasefire in 1974, seven years after Israel captured the plateau.
The truce’s stability has been shaken in recent months, as Syrian mortar shells have hit the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, sparking worries among Israeli officials that the violence may prompt UNDOF to end its mission.
“The mission in the Golan needs to review its security arrangements and it has been doing that,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said on Friday.
Asked if the incident would prompt Manila to withdraw its peacekeeping personnel, Philippine military spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos said deployments would continue, although assessments would be made to better safeguard the peacekeepers in increasingly hostile areas.
More than 600 Philippine security personnel are deployed in nine UN peacekeeping areas worldwide, Arcan said.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III a week ago said he has asked the military to assess whether large numbers of Philippine peacekeepers should be reduced to help address the country’s growing security needs.
“All of these deployments have a vital function. We are part of a global community. If there’s peace in the Middle East, it also helps us,”Aquino said.
However, he asked: “Can we afford to send this number of people?”