All 75 Filipino troops serving as UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights are safe after the last batch slipped away under the cover of night from besieging Syrian rebels, military spokesmen said yesterday.
Philippine Armed Forces Chief General Gregorio Catapang called it “the greatest escape,” and praised the soldiers.
“Although they were surrounded and outnumbered they held their ground,” he told reporters.
The troops are part of a UN peacekeeping force that has been stationed in the Golan Heights since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria.
“Everyone is in a safe position. We left our [old] position, but we brought all our arms,” Philippine Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said.
An initial group of 35 Filipino troops were picked up from their position by Irish UN soldiers in armored vehicles on Saturday after Syrian rebels attacked their comrades positioned about 4km away, the Philippine military said.
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 troops later walked to safety at a UN position just over 2km away.
In a statement, the UN said the 40 Filipino peacekeepers withdrew shortly after midnight “during a ceasefire agreed with the armed elements.”
They later moved to Camp Ziouani behind UN lines.
“There is no more standoff. All are safe,” Zagala said.
The troops, burdened by their equipment and cold weather, walked for about 1 hour, 40 minutes in the dark to reach safety, he said in Manila.
Catapang said the Syrian and Israeli governments had supported the Filipinos in upholding “the integrity of the area of separation.”
Catapang also credited the US and Qatar governments for helping safeguard the blue helmets, but did not elaborate.
“The Armed Forces of the Philippines and the United Nations will not compromise the safety and security of our troops while in the pursuit of their duties. It is in our national interest to prioritize their safety without abandoning our commitment to international security,” he said.
The head of Philippine peacekeeping operations, Colonel Roberto Ancan, said the Syrians had provided “indirect fire support” that took the pressure off the besieged Filipinos.
The peacekeepers were besieged by rebels on Thursday, but defied demands that they give up their weapons.
Rebels, including some linked to al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, al-Nusra Front, also took hostage 44 Fijian peacekeepers, the UN has said.
Asked what the Filipino peacekeepers would do now, Zagala said: “We continue our mission. Our commitment is still there.”
On Aug. 23, the Philippine Department of Defense announced that it would withdraw the 331-strong Filipino contingent serving as part of the UN Disengagement Force in the Golan Heights at the end of their tour of duty next month due to the worsening security situation.
Israel seized 1,200km2 of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War, then annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.