PH peacekeepers defied UN order to surrender
MANILA, Philippines–The 40 Filipino peacekeepers who escaped a massacre on the Golan Heights early on Sunday defied an order from the United Nations ground commander to surrender their firearms, deciding instead to fight the Syrian rebels before fleeing their besieged camp, the military said on Monday.
Armed Forces of the Philipines Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang defended the decision of Capt. Nilo Ramones, the Filipino ground commander, to defy a valid order from the United Nation Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) commander to the peacekeepers to wave the white flag and surrender their weapons while negotiations for the release of 44 captured Fijian peacekeepers were going on.
Ramones cleared his decision with defense and military officials who were monitoring the crisis from Manila, Catapang said.
Catapang said the Undof commander gave vague and inconsistent orders to the peacekeepers, prompting Ramones to call Manila for consultations.
The military chief said Undof’s rules were not clear about the authority of the force’s commander to order peacekeepers to surrender.
“The Undof commander wanted to save the Fijians at the expense of the Filipino peacekeepers. But it’s not our fault that the Fijians were taken hostage,” Catapang said.
“What I mean is, our commander [wanted to] save the Filipinos first and then we would help the Fijians later,” he said.
Catapang said there was no assurance that the Filipino peacekeepers would not end up as hostages, too.
Muntinlupa Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, a former AFP chief of staff, asked the House of Representatives on Monday to investigate the Golan Heights standoff to determine when UN peacekeepers could use force in self-defense.
“Although the incident turned out well for our peacekeepers, there are matters [that] should be looked into in order to come up with remedial measures or legislation to ensure their safety and security,” Biazon said in introducing House Resolution No. 1429 seeking an inquiry into the standoff in aid of legislation.
The Syrian rebels, believed to be from the al-Qaida-linked Nustra Front fighting the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria, spilled into the buffer zone between Israel and Syria on Wednesday last week and surrounded Undof Area Position 27 manned by the Fijians on the Syrian side of the armistice line.
The rebels demanded the peacekeepers surrender their weapons. The Fijians turned in their firearms then were seized by the rebels.
After seizing the Fijians, the rebels laid siege on Area Position 68, manned by 40 Filipino peacekeepers, and Area Position 69, held by 32 Filipino Blue Helmets on the Syrian side of the UN-controlled zone.
Standoff with rebels
The rebels demanded that the Filipinos hand over their weapons, but the peacekeepers refused and stood their ground, triggering a standoff.
At 6 a.m. on Saturday (noon in Manila), the rebels attacked Area Position 69. With help from Syrian troops and Irish peacekeepers, the Filipinos fought back then fled to safety on the Israeli side of the armistice line.
The rebels also opened fire on Area Position 68, prompting the Filipinos to return fire. They battled the rebels for seven hours, the military said.
The rebels called in reinforcements, but Syrian troops gave the Filipinos a hand by firing artillery rounds from a distance to weaken the siege.
Night fell and the rebels, unable to bear the low nighttime temperatures on the Golan Heights, retired to houses in the area.
The Filipinos seized the opportunity and slipped out of their camp at midnight carrying their weapons. They reached the Israeli side of the territory at 1:40 a.m. (about 5 a.m. in Manila) on Sunday.
Less problem for Undof
Catapang said that by defying the Undof commander, Ramones eased the UN command’s problem by avoiding a second hostage situation involving Philippine troops.
“For the Nustra Front rebels, weapons are symbolic. I said that for us Filipinos it was our honor that was at stake. I told the Philippine battalion commander that if he liked, he could donate the weapons of the Fijians. There are 400 Fijians there so they have more weapons than us,” Catapang said.
Catapang said the Philippine troops were asked to explain why they defied a valid order but he also wanted the Undof Force commander to explain his conflicting instructions that compromised the safety of the Filipino soldiers.
He said it was still “being sorted out” in the United Nations whether what the Philippine contingent did was right or wrong.
Catapang said that Philippine national policy should prevail over any rules of engagement.
“I think [our decision was right] because [all of our troops] are safe now,” he said.
The Filipino peacekeepers are now in Camp Ziouni, the Philippine contingent’s headquarters near the Israeli side of the territory.
PH standing in UN
Catapang acknowledged that the Philippine defiance could affect the country’s standing in the United Nations.
“They have to understand that the safety of our soldiers is of primordial importance. It prevails over and above the Fijian situation,” he said.
Catapang talked to the Filipino peacekeepers via Skype on Monday and praised them for a job well done and for highlighting the “world-class courage and professionalism” of Filipino troops in the service of global peace.
Col. Roberto Ancan, chief of the AFP Peacekeeping Operations Center, defended Catapang’s decision, saying that national interest should prevail over the Fijian situation.
“We can do that because as a member state, we are just loaned by the Undof and with that, we can take orders from our national government, from the capital,” Ancan said.
Weapons PH property
He explained that the peacekeepers’ weapons are Philippine government property and they are part of the troops’ uniforms.
“As peacekeepers, they are duty-bound to defend themselves and [UN] facilities, in that order,” Ancan said.
He said it was the paramount duty of the commander on the ground to ensure the safety of the peacekeepers.
Ancan said the contingent’s tour of duty ended in June this year but it was extended up to October this year on the request of Undof.
President Aquino has ordered the repatriation of the peacekeepers after the end of their tour of duty.
Ancan said Filipino troops were manning another UN encampment on the Golan Heights, Area Position 80, located at the middle of the southern part of the buffer zone.
It is believed to be safe, as the camp is near the water gate on the Israeli side of the territory.–With a report from Gil C. Cabacungan