Despite the danger they faced when they came under attack from Syrian rebels, Filipino troops in Golan Heights will continue doing their peacekeeping work, Malacanang and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said on Sunday.
Malacañang said the Filipino soldiers will not be pulled out before their tour of duty ends.
Armed Forces chief Pio Catapang was all praises for the Philippine troops who were able to move to a safer location in the dead of night.
“It was, maybe we may call it the greatest escape,” Catapang said as he narrated how the 40 Filipino peacekeepers in Position 68, where the fiercest firefight took place, got out of harm’s way in the dead of the night, aided by other allied UN forces.
According to Catapang, more than 100 rebels on board three pick-up trucks mounted with Russian-made ZPU anti-aircraft guns attacked the Filipinos on Position 68 on Saturday morning.
“Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground,” he told reporters.
“Our troops fought back bravely and successfully held their positions after a seven-hour firefight. This prompted the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) to reposition our troops to a more secure position within the mission area,” Catapang said.
The Syrian and Israeli governments, along with an armored unit of the Irish contingent in the Undof, as well as the United States and Qatar, helped the Filipino peacekeepers move out of their besieged area.
AFP Public Affairs Office chief Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said now that the Filipino soldiers have been moved to a more secure position, they can continue doing their peacekeeping jobs.
“As a troop-contributing country, we can tell the United Nations that this is our caveat: We just need to reposition, but we can still perform our mandate,’’ Zagala said.
When asked what the Filipino peacekeepers would do now, he replied: “We continue our mission. Our commitment is still there.”
The Filipino contingent in the Golan Heights is scheduled to end its tour of duty in October.
According to Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr., the Filipino peacekeepers will come home when their tour of duty ends.
“President [Aquino] has not indicated any change as of yet,” Coloma also on Sunday said in a text message to The Manila Times, adding that the Filipino troops will remain in the Golan Heights until October as part of the country’s commitment to the United Nations.
The official said the soldiers will be “flown back home” when their mission ends.
Coloma thanked the UN force as well as Syria, Israel, Qatar and the US for their assistance in the crisis.
“It is in our nation’s interest to give priority to [the soldiers’]safety but we will not turn our backs on our commitment to global security particularly in the Golan Heights and the Middle East,” he said.
Catapang said all 75 soldiers serving with a UN peacekeeping force in the Middle East flashpoint zone reached safety.
An initial group of 35 Filipino troops were picked up from their position by Irish UN soldiers in armored vehicles on Saturday after Syrian rebels attacked their comrades positioned about four kilometers away.
The remaining 40 soldiers engaged in a “seven-hour firefight” with the rebels who tried to ram the gates with pick-up trucks carrying anti-aircraft guns.
The soldiers, who were armed only with machine-guns and rifles, held off the rebels who
even used a mortar to shell their positions, Col. Roberto Ancan, commander of the AFP Peacekeeping Operations Center, said.
The troops later walked to safety to a UN position just over two kilometers away.
In a statement, the UN said the 40 Filipino peacekeepers withdrew shortly after midnight “during a ceasefire agreed with the armed elements.”
They later moved to Camp Ziouani behind UN lines.
Ancan said Syrian forces fired on the rebels, preventing them from further closing in and later forcing them to retreat.
In March 2013, Syrian rebels held 21 Filipino UN peacekeepers for four days and then in May, they held four Filipino peacekeepers for five days before releasing them.
A Filipino peacekeeper was wounded by shrapnel on June 6, 2013 amid fighting between the rebels and Syrian forces.