MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine military said Monday that a UN peacekeeping commander in the Golan Heights should be investigated for allegedly asking Filipino troops to surrender to Syrian rebels who had attacked and surrounded their camp.
Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said he advised the 40 Filipino peacekeepers not to lay down their arms, and they defied the UN peacekeeping commander’s order. Instead, they staged a daring escape from the Golan camp over the weekend, ending a tense, dayslong standoff.
The disagreement is another blow to a UN peacekeeping mission that has been threatened by an escalation of violence in a buffer zone it has been guarding between Israel and Syria. A number of countries have withdrawn their troops from the peacekeeping force due to rising rebel attacks.
Forty-five Fijian peacekeepers who surrendered their firearms to the rebels last week are still being held by the al-Qaida-linked insurgents.
The commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF, which supervises the peacekeeping mission in Golan, was overseeing talks with the Syrian rebels to secure the freedom of the Fijians. However, Catapang said he would not agree to any resolution of the hostage crisis that would put Filipino troops in grave danger.
When the besieged Filipino troops sought his advice after they were ordered to lay down their arms as part of an arrangement with the rebels to secure the Fijians’ release, Catapang said he asked them to defy the order.
“I told them not to follow the order because that is a violation of our regulation, that we do not surrender our firearms, and, at the same time, there is no assurance that you will be safe after you give your firearms,” Catapang said.
“Our stand is, we will not allow our soldiers to become sacrificial pawns in order to save the Fijians,” Catapang told The Associated Press. “They should look for other ways and means to save the Fijians.”
UNDOF did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Catapang said an investigation would allow the UNDOF commander to explain his side and the Philippine military to explain why it advised the Filipino peacekeepers to defy his order.
Due to the differences over the handling of the Golan crisis, Catapang said he asked a Filipino military officer playing a key role in UNDOF to resign.
The Philippines has given notice it will not deploy a new contingent when its current peacekeeping force ends its already-extended stint in October.
The latest crisis began after Syrian rebels overran the Quneitra crossing — located on the de facto border between Syrian- and Israeli-controlled parts of the Golan Heights — on Wednesday. A day later, insurgents from the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front seized the Fijian peacekeepers and surrounded their Filipino colleagues, demanding they surrender.
The Filipinos, occupying two UN camps, refused and fought the rebels on Saturday. A first group of 35 peacekeepers was then successfully escorted out of one camp by Irish and Filipino forces in armored vehicles.
The remaining 40 peacekeepers were besieged at the second camp by more than 100 gunmen who rammed the camp’s gates with their trucks and fired mortar rounds. The Filipinos returned fire in self-defense, Philippine military officials said.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.