Forty Filipino peacekeepers are battling heavily armed Syrian rebels who are trying to overrun their United Nations encampment on the Golan Heights, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said on Saturday.
“They have high morale,” Gazmin told reporters, referring to the group of Filipino peacekeepers defending Area Position 68 of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) on the Golan Heights.
Gazmin said the rebels attacked Area Position 68, about 4 kilometers from Area Position 69, after noon but were repulsed by the Filipinos.
The fire fight was going on between the Filipino peacekeepers and the rebels as of 5 p.m. in Manila.
Gazmin said the Filipinos had reported no casualties. He praised the elite troops’ courage and “high morale.”
A military official who asked not to be identified said the Filipino troops manning Area Positions 68 and 69 belonged to the Philippine Army’s elite Scout Rangers and Special Forces.
Gazmin said a second group of 35 Filipino peacekeepers manning Area Position 69 in the UN-controlled buffer zone between Israel and Syria were “extricated” after Syrian troops came to reinforce the Philippine troops when the rebels attacked at 6 a.m.
In a post on its website, the Irish Mirror said the Filipinos managed to escape from their besieged post but were chased by the rebels.
Irish peacekeepers, however, saved the Filipinos from “a massacre by securing an escape route” for them “near the Israeli-Syrian border,” the Mirror said.
The military official who asked for anonymity said the decision to extricate the Philippine forces from Area Position 69 was made by the Undof commander and not by the Philippine government.
On Friday, the United Nations ordered 58 Filipino peacekeepers moved from Area Position 60 to Undof headquarters in Camp Faouar.
Bishop Leopoldo Tumulak of the Military Ordinariate of the Philippines said a Filipino chaplain accompanied the Philippine contingent in Undof.
Tumulak, however, did not identify the chaplain.
He called on Filipinos to pray for their peacekeepers on the Golan Heights.
Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the fighting between the Filipino peacekeepers and the Syrian rebels on Saturday.
Abdurrahman, whose information comes from a network of activists throughout Syria, said he was not aware of any fatalities among the 40 Filipino peacekeepers in Area Position 68 in the Rwihana base of Undof.
The Filipino peacekeepers’ commander, Col. Roberto Ancan, chief of the peacekeeping operations division of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said on Friday that the Filipinos were allowed to use “deadly force” to defend themselves and UN facilities on the Golan Heights.
“It is the UN flag that flies in those facilities. We must defend those facilities,” Ancan told reporters at AFP headquarters in Quezon City.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, spokesperson for the AFP, told reporters on Friday that the peacekeepers would not surrender.
“The Filipino peacekeepers are contributing to the United Nations for a more peaceful world. But when we are challenged, the warrior spirit in us will not make us surrender,” he said.
On Saturday, he told reporters that the Filipino peacekeepers were defending their position against the attacking rebels.
“There is an ongoing fire fight, but all Filipinos are safe,” he said.
Undersecretary of Defense for Operations Natalio Ecarma III told reporters on Friday that the Syrian rebels were most likely just after the Filipino peacekeepers’ weapons and provisions.
The peacekeepers were armed with M4 assault rifles, M60 light machine guns, K3 squad automatic weapons and .45-caliber M1911 pistols.
Defense and military officials were meeting at AFP headquarters on Saturday to assess the situation. The command conference was still going on as of 7 on Saturday night.
Malacañang said President Benigno Aquino III was receiving “round the clock” briefing on the events on the Golan Heights.
Presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the government was considering withdrawing the Philippine contingent from the Undof mission on the Golan Heights earlier than October as a result of the attack on the Filipino peacekeepers.
Last week, Mr. Aquino ordered the Philippine contingent withdrawn due to security concerns, but the troops would have to wait until the end of their tour of duty in October.
Mr. Aquino also ordered the repatriation “as soon as possible” of Filipino peacekeepers in Liberia to keep them from contracting Ebola, which had sickened more than 3,000 people and killed more than 1,500 in West Africa since March. With reports from Nikko Dizon, Tina G. Santos, AP and AFP