President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Wednesday said the mission given by the United
Nations to Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights in the Middle East was unclear and impossible to carry out.
Speaking at a ceremony at Malacañang honoring the peacekeepers, the President said their mission was to “separate the opposing forces of Israel and Syria,” which face each other across the Golan Heights, but the situation changed when the Syrian rebels kept “popping up” in the disputed territory.
Aquino said the UN’s rejection of his request to give the peacekeepers more weapons had left them unnecessarily vulnerable when al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels attacked and surrounded them in August.
“Our request for more arms was denied . . . and our fears were realized when the stand-off happened,” he noted.
The rebels surrounded 75 Filipino “blue helmets,” as the UN’s peacekeeping forces are often referred to, manning two positions in the Golan Heights and demanded that they lay down their arms.
The Filipinos refused to yield, resulting in a two-day standoff.
The stalemate ended after 35 of the peacekeepers were escorted by UN troops out of their post and the remaining 40 sneaked out under the cover of night after trading fire with the rebels for seven hours.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines chief, Gen. Gregorio Catapang, said the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) commander, an Indian general, ordered the Filipino soldiers to surrender as a way of securing the release of Fijian peacekeepers whom the rebels seized earlier.
The President said it may “not [be]the time for pointing fingers,” but because of the incident, the government is reviewing all of the Philippines’ peacekeeping missions.
He added that results of the UN investigation of the incident will be “the basis of whether we will again participate” in peacekeeping missions in the Golan Heights.
”We cannot put our troops in a situation wherein the mission is impossible or not clear. What’s important are the lives of each one,” Aquino said.
The peacekeepers, according to the President, made the right decision in escaping since laying down their arms would have endangered their lives.
Aquino praised them for fulfilling their duties and gaining the admiration of the country.
”You truly withstood the conditions despite our limited resources,” the President said.
”Because of that, the whole country admires you. This is truly the life, quality, skill, courage and competence of our armed forces.”
The 330 Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights returned to the Philippines in two batches last month.
The President announced that the troops’ next mission is to guard Pope Francis when he visits the country in January and the participants to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Manila, also in 2015.
Contingent Commander Lt. Col. Ted Dumusmog will lead the soldiers in their next mission.
In an interview, Dumusmog said before they train for their next mission, the peacekeepers will go on a 15-day furlough to spend time with their families.
“We are conducting the reorganizing of our units. Definitely it will be a different mission and we are already preparing our training,” he added.
Dumusmog said they have not received the details of the Pope’s itinerary, which will guide their training.
He added that the peacekeepers will work closely with the Philippine National Police, which will be in charge of the Pope’s security.
Dumusmog described the mission as “challenging, as it is different from the combat missions they usually engage in.”
He expressed confidence that his troops are up to the challenge.
“[For] most of them, it will be the first time for them to see the Pope. They are very much excited,” Dumusmog said.
With a report from AFP