‘7 hours of fighting enemy is cowardice?’
Is standing your ground and never surrendering your firearms cowardice?
That’s how Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. defended the 40 Filipino peacekeepers who refused to surrender and instead battled Syrian rebels on the Golan Heights for seven hours last week.
“Seven hours of fighting the enemy, is that cowardice? I don’t think so,” Catapang said in response to questions about the accusation that Lt. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha of India, commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) on the Golan Heights, had thrown at the Filipino peacekeepers who defied his order to surrender their weapons and instead fought the rebels from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front who were holding 45 Fijian peacekeepers hostage.
The fire fight, which began when the rebels attacked Undof Position 68 manned by the Filipinos after noon (about 5 p.m. in Manila) last Saturday, lasted till about midnight.
The rebels brought in reinforcements then rested, giving the Filipinos a chance to slip out of their encampment after midnight.
They walked more than 2 kilometers to safety on the Israeli side of the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria at 1:50 a.m. (about 7 a.m. in Manila) on Sunday.
On Wednesday, the UN Security Council issued a statement commending the peacekeepers “for their bravery in facing the threats and challenges in their area of operation.”
The Security Council condemned the detention of the 45 Fijian peacekeepers and demanded their “immediate and unconditional release.”
It also demanded that the Syrian rebels leave the ceasefire line on the Golan Heights and return the peacekeepers’ weapons, vehicles and other equipment.
In a report published in India Today newspaper on Wednesday, Singha said the Filipino peacekeepers “broke the chain of command and UN orders.”
“The nonprofessional actions of the Filipino troops have endangered the lives of Fijian soldiers. They have defied orders at a time when we had negotiated a ceasefire with the rebels to ensure that all troops in the conflict area could exit,” Singha said.
“The higher echelon as well as the Indian Army agrees with me that the decision was correct. It is an act of cowardice to desert posts, especially when a delicate ceasefire was in place,” he added.
UN Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous defended Singha on Thursday and denied that the Undof commander had given orders for the Filipino soldiers to surrender their weapons to the rebels.
But Malacañang said on Friday that it was sure that the Filipino peacekeepers made the right decision.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said it had been agreed that the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) would handle Singha’s accusations.
The DFA, however, refused to comment on Friday.
Charles Jose, spokesperson for the DFA, told reporters that the Philippine mission in the United Nations would handle the situation but he did not elaborate.
The government “does not want to exacerbate the situation,” Lacierda said.
Lacierda explained, however, that the Filipino peacekeepers were on the Golan Heights to help keep the ceasefire between Israel and Syria.
But the attack of the Syrian rebels changed the rules of engagement, he said. While the Filipino peacekeepers were not supposed to take offensive action, they needed to defend themselves when they were attacked.
“And so we stand by our… peacekeepers. They did the right decision,” Lacierda said.
Pull out now
Muntinlupa City Rep. Rodolfo Biazon took exception to Singha’s accusations, which he said should compel the Philippines to “immediately withdraw” all Filipino troops from the Golan Heights.
Biazon, chair of the House defense and security committee, said Singha ordered the Fijian peacekeepers to surrender their weapons to the Syrian rebels, leading to their being taken hostage.
“Our troops fought gallantly, even though they were running low on ammunition and there was the danger of their position being overrun by the attackers,” Biazon said.
Biazon, a former AFP chief of staff, questioned the competence of Singha.
“Why was there no reinforcement or ammunition resupply to the besieged Filipino contingent from the Undof led by Lieutenant General Singha?” he asked.
Biazon said the Philippine government should inquire into and clarify three things: the rules of engagement in UN peacekeeping deployments, the capability of the United Nations to reinforce besieged peacekeeping forces and the policy on what type of arms UN peacekeepers are allowed.
The Filipino peacekeepers were armed with M4 assault rifles, M60 light machine guns, Korean-made K3 light machine guns and .45-cal. M1911 pistols.
“It appears that the Filipino contingent did not have mortars and other high-performance… weapons, which are needed especially when UN forces are being attacked. However, despite our predicament, surrender to an unknown group was never considered an option by the Filipino contingent,” Biazon said.
No written order
Catapang, who monitored the crisis with defense and foreign affairs officials from Manila, divulged Singha’s order to surrender in a news conference on Monday and told reporters on Wednesday that he had demanded that Singha put his orders in writing because the Indian could deny it later. Singha refused and later denied he ordered the Filipinos to surrender their weapons.
On Friday, Catapang said the final word would come from President Aquino, to whom he had submitted a report on the crisis, including an account from Capt. Nilo Ramones, leader of the Filipino troops at Position 68.
The Syrian rebels seized 45 Fijian peacekeepers from Position 27 after taking their weapons last Wednesday then besieged the Filipinos’ Position 68 and Position 69, which was manned by 35 other Filipino peacekeepers.
The rebels demanded that the Filipinos hand over their weapons but the peacekeepers refused, triggering a standoff.
It appeared that Singha wanted the Filipinos to give in to the rebels’ demand to buy time for negotiations for the release of the Fijians.
But Catapang said there was no assurance that the Filipinos would not also be taken hostage.
The rebels attacked the two Undof positions last Saturday but were outsmarted by the Filipinos, who fought back with artillery support fire from Syrian troops then slipped out of their camps to avoid a massacre with assistance from the Syrians and Irish and other Filipino peacekeepers.
It’s Singha’s fault
On Thursday, Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, spokesperson for the AFP, blamed the crisis on Singha, who he said could have repositioned the peacekeepers at Positions 68 and 69 earlier.
Instead, he said, Singha did nothing for the Filipinos and allowed the fire fight to go on for seven hours.
“He left us there. [We were running low on ammunition] and he told us that if we were attacked again, [we were] to lay down our arms and raise the white flag. Now [which is cowardly], his orders or [our taking] the best option to save Filipino soldiers’ lives?” Zagala said.
Col. Ezra Enriquez, Singha’s Filipino chief of staff, cleared the escape plan with defense and military officials in Manila.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin approved the plan, Catapang said.
After defying Singha’s order to surrender, Enriquez resigned and went on leave. He will return with the rest of the Philippine contingent of the Undof at the end of their tour of duty next month.
No blame game
On Friday, Catapang reiterated that the military does not want the crisis to become a blame game. The military has submitted its report to President Aquino, he added.
“What is important to us now is that we were able to save our soldiers. If they say something unfavorable, it’s out of the question for us,” Catapang told reporters.
He said the Filipino peacekeepers would not lie about being ordered by Singha to surrender their weapons.
“They won’t say something like that if it wasn’t true. That’s why they called the higher command …. And I said they should not give up their guns [to the Syrian rebels] if that was the order to [them],” he said.
Catapang said all the Filipino peacekeepers were safe and remained under the control of the United Nations. They will come home after their tour of duty next month, he said.
“Let’s prepare a heroes’ welcome for our soldiers,” Catapang said. He said the high command was studying promotions for the peacekeepers. With reports from DJ Yap and Niña P. Calleja
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