Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights exchanged fire with Syrian rebels on Saturday, Philippine military officials reported.
Armed Forces of the Philippines chief information officer Lt. Colonel Ramon Zagala said the 75 Filipino troops engaged the Syrian rebels in a fierce firefight. The Filipinos are part of the United Nations Disengagement Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights.
Zagala could not yet say if there were casualties among the Filipinos.
“We will give you details later on . . . we will just let you know, the priority really right now is the safety of our troops,” he said.
He assured that “our troops are safe at the moment.”
Military officials did not provide media details of the fighting because after a press briefing scheduled on Saturday afternoon was cancelled. Zagala said the officials were busy monitoring developments in the Golan Heights and were focused on the safety and security of the Filipino peacekeepers.
In a text message to reporters, Gazmin said some of the Filipino troops had been “extricated” or pulled out from one of their two positions, but another group of Filipino soldiers came under fire.
He was referring to two positions on the Golan Heights where more than 70 Filipino troops had previously been surrounded by Syrian rebels linked to al Qaeda on Thursday.
The peacekeepers defied demands that they give up their weapons. On Friday, Syrian rebels took 43 Fijian soldiers hostage on the Golan Heights.
Gazmin said the clash took place at “6 a.m., Syria time,” but added that the Filipinos’ morale “is high.”
This could be the first time since the Vietnam War that Filipino soldiers have been involved in fighting in foreign soil and foreign enemies.
The standoff in the Golan Heights remains volatile despite two days of continuous back-channeling efforts by the United Nation (UN) to end the impasse peacefully.
“Negotiations are still ongoing, the standoff is still there. Nothing has changed so we cannot say that the situation has improved,” Zagala said.
He said they remain hopeful that the rebels would eventually give way to UN intervention.
Retired general and now Defense Undersecretary Natalio Ecarma 3rd, former commander of the UN Disengagement Observers Force (UNDOF), said UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and his assistant secretaries were talking to the supporters of the rebel group and appealing to them to convince the rebels to stand down.
The inability of the Syrian government to guarantee the security of peacekeepers is enough reason for the Philippine government to pull out its contingent in the Golan Heights.
“When two parties to a conflict need an intermediary to keep the peace, they invite the UN peacekeeping force. When they invite the UN peacekeeping force, one of the requirements of UN is to ensure the safety and securing of our peacekeeping forces,” Ecarma said.
“It has become so dangerous [for the Filipino peacekeepers]. We are willing to help keep the peace but not to the extent of [putting their lives in danger],” he added.
As peacekeepers, the Filipino contingent is relegated to a defensive position, Ecarma said.
The peacekeepers are allowed to use force if their lives are at risk or when under attack.
Earlier, Col. Roberto Ancan, commanding officer of the AFP Peacekeeping Operations Center, said the rebels surrounded the Filipino encampments in Position 68 and Position 69, located four kilometers apart inside the demilitarized area of the Golan Heights.
There are 40 peacekeepers in Position 68 and 35 in Position 69.
Ancan said the Filipinos were instructed to keep their positions and defend their encampments.
“We have our rules of engagement with which we can use deadly force in defense of UN facilities. It’s the UN flag that flies in these facilities. So we must defend those facilities,” Ancan said.