All the Filipino UN peacekeepers trapped by Islamist militants in the Golan Heights are now safe after they slipped away under cover of darkness and made it to a nearby UN encampment, military sources in the Philippines said Sunday.
"Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground," the Philippines' military chief, General Gregorio Catapang, told reporters, calling it "the greatest escape".
"Everyone is in a safe position. We left our [old] position but we brought all our arms," said Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala.
There were a total of 75 Filipino peacekeepers serving in the UN contingent. An initial group of 35 were picked up from their position by Irish UN troops in armoured vehicles on Saturday after Syrian rebels attacked their comrades, who were positioned about four kilometres (2.5 miles) away, the Philippines military said.
The remaining 40 Filipinos were trapped in a "seven-hour firefight" with Islamist rebels, who tried to ram the gates with pick-up trucks carrying anti-aircraft guns.
The UN said in a statement that the peacekeepers escaped shortly after midnight "during a ceasefire agreed with the armed elements".
The troops, carrying their equipment and facing cold weather, walked for about an hour and 40 minutes in the dark to reach Camp Ziouani behind UN lines, Zagala said from Manila.
The peacekeepers are from the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), tasked with monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Military chief Catapang said the Syrian and Israeli governments had supported the Filipinos in upholding "the integrity of the area of separation".
Catapang also credited the US and Qatari governments for helping safeguard the blue helmets, but did not elaborate.
"The armed forces of the Philippines and the United Nations will not compromise the safety and security of our troops while in the pursuit of their duties. It is in our national interest to prioritise their safety without abandoning our commitment to international security," he said.
The head of the Philippines' peacekeeping operations, Colonel Roberto Ancan, said the Syrians had provided "indirect fire support" that took the pressure off the besieged Filipinos.
The peacekeepers first came under attack by Islamist fighters Thursday but defied the militants' demands that they give up their weapons.
The rebels – including some linked to al Qaeda's Syria affiliate the Nusra Front – also took hostage 44 Fijian peacekeepers, the UN has said.
Asked what the Filipino peacekeepers would do now, Zagala said "we continue our mission", adding: "Our commitment is still there."
The Philippines' Department of National Defense announced August 23 that it would withdraw the 331-strong Filipino contingent serving as part of UNDOF in the Golan Heights at the end of their tour of duty in October, due to the worsening security situation.
Israel shoots down drone flying in from Syria
Israel downed a drone over the occupied Golan Heights on Sunday, the army said, amid mounting tension on the UN-patrolled armistice line with Syria on the strategic plateau.
Air defences "successfully intercepted an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that breached Israel airspace above the border with Syria," an army statement said.
"We have said several times that we shall respond to any violation of our sovereignty," it added.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-08-31