Malacañang on Friday defended the decision of 75 Filipino peacekeeping troops to defy their commander’s order to surrender to Syrian rebels who had surrounded their positions in the Golan Heights.
The commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights, Indian Lt. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha, criticized the Filipino troops for disobeying him.
Singha said the peacekeepers defied orders at a time when they had negotiated a ceasefire with the rebels to ensure that all troops in the conflict area could leave safely.
But Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the Filipinos did right the thing when they chose to end a standoff with Syrian rebels by escaping after a seven-hour clash.
The Filipino peacekeepers “were running low on ammo [ammunition]. It was not something imaginable for our peacekeepers to surrender themselves. We stand by our Filipino peacekeepers,” Lacierda told reporters.
He said the Filipino troops “had to defend themselves” because “the rules of engagement changed.”
“Let me just emphasize one thing: Peacekeepers are there to keep the peace between Israel and Syria. What we have in the situation on the ground, in the Golan Heights, was that there was a third party non-state that intervened; meaning, the Syrian rebels,” Lacierda noted.
“While the peacekeepers are not supposed to take any offensive operation… they were attacked and so they would have to defend themselves…we believe that, and we are very certain, that our Philippine troops, our Filipino peacekeepers, made the right decision,” he said.
Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang submitted a report on the incident to President Aquino 3rd, drawing on the accounts of Col. James Ezra Enriquez, commander of the 7th Philippine Contingent to the Golan Heights peacekeeping operation, and other ground commanders, including Capt. Nilo Ramones, leader of the Filipino troops who defended Position 68.
The UN undersecretary general for peacekeeping, Herve Ladsous, has denied that an order to surrender was given. Ladsous said the order was for the Filipino troops “not to shoot.”
Malacañang said the 346 Filipino peacekeepers would remain in the Golan Heights until the end of their tour of duty in October.
Before the crisis, President Aquino had ordered Filipino peacekeepers withdrawn from the Golan Heights because of the deteriorating security situation on the plateau caused by the worsening civil war in Syria.
The peacekeepers’ vehicles had been caught in crossfires and some of the soldiers had been injured.
Last year, Syrian rebels abducted Filipino peacekeepers on a logistical run in two separate incidents.
The Filipinos were all released unharmed.
Catapang also on Friday decided to keep his lips sealed over the Golan Heights
incident to avoid a debate with Singha.
The India Today newspaper quoted Singha as calling the Filipino peacekeepers’ decision to withdraw from Position 68 as “an act of cowardice.”
The Armed Forces has maintained that its decision to defy Singha saved the lives of the 40 Filipino peacekeepers in Position 68.
Enriquez, UNDOF chief of staff, has submitted his courtesy resignation over disagreements with Singha but it was rejected.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, Armed Forces spokesman, said Enriquez was put on administrative leave until the Filipino soldiers are repatriated.
Enriquez submitted his resignation after challenging Singha’s order.
“We do not know the reason why he [Singha] changed his orders and that’s why they got into a disagreement,” Zagala said.
“I myself was there and I heard on the video conference that because they were not repositioned the possibility of attack is imminent. The orders of the [UNDOF)] commander as relayed by Col. Enriquez was for the Filipino troops to raise the white flag and give up their arms, so what does that tell you?” he added.
Zagala said that before the attack on Position 68, Catapang even talked to Singha to relay his concern about the safety of the Filipino troops, telling him that “we will not give up our firearms.”
The DFA also on Friday said the Philippines will continue to raise its concerns on the Golan Heights incident through diplomatic channels.
Charles Jose, Foreign Affairs spokesman, delivered the statement on behalf of Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario.
“The Philippines is taking steps to address our peacekeeping concerns through diplomatic channels within the United Nations. We should focus now on supporting efforts to secure the freedom of the Fijian peacekeepers,” del Rosario said in his statement.
WITH REPORTS FROM WILLIAM B. DEPASUPIL AND BERNICE CAMILLE V. BAUZON