The Philippine army has begun withdrawing its forces from the Golan Heights two weeks earlier than planned due to the escalating fighting on the Syrian side of the plateau.
A military spokesman in Manila said 244 Filipino soldiers were evacuated in a UN aircraft, and are slated to arrive Friday in the country’s capital Manila, Israel Radio reports.
The remaining 100 soldiers will be evacuated in a week.
Last month, Philippine soldiers found themselves surrounded and battling Syrian rebels with ties to Al Qaeda after the rebel group had demanded their surrender.
The Philippine government had decided before the incident not to extend the forces’ stay in the Golan beyond next month.
The Philippine contingent served five years in the 1,200-strong UN Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan, which has recently relocated to Mount Bental, behind the Israeli defensive line, to avoid further clashes with Syrian armed groups.
An outsized global presence
After nearly two decades on the frontlines against Muslim insurgents in the Philippines’ violence-plagued south, Army Captain Teodoro Nicor is looking forward to guarding a war zone abroad.
Nicor is training with hundreds of other battle-hardened troops to join a United Nations peacekeeping mission overseas, continuing a tradition that began more than 50 years ago when Filipino soldiers went to the Congo.
“We are very excited,” said Nicor, 39. “There is fear, but we have prepared really well for this.”
The Philippines participation in the UN’s blue helmet brigades came under the spotlight last month when 75 soldiers fended off an attack by Al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights.
While the incident made world headlines and prompted the UN to withdraw its peacekeeping force from the Syrian side of the territory, training for Nicor and his colleagues is very much focused on charm offensives.
At a military base dedicated solely to UN peacekeeping training, Nicor last week led a seven-vehicle convoy through a mock war zone to deliver supplies when they were stopped by “civilians” desperate for food.
With the rifle slung on his back pointed to the ground, he sought out the group’s leader and offered a handshake while his men in blue helmets and bulletproof vests stood on guard behind him.
“My friend, good morning,” a smiling Nicor said.
Angry, repeated demands for food ensued, with Nicor slowly defusing the situation through calm negotiations while maintaining a friendly demeanor.
Colonel Roberto Ancan, commander of the training camp, said Filipinos brought a unique mix to the UN’s peacekeeping missions with their internationally renowned friendliness and battlefield experience.
“We wave, we smile, we shake hands, we greet good morning, good afternoon and good evening and in the local language as well,” said Ancan, himself a former peacekeeper in Timor Leste.
He said the Filipinos had a term for themselves that reflected their unique qualities: “warrior peacekeepers.”
The warrior element was on full display in the Golan Heights stand-off, after the rebels surrounded the Filipinos at their outposts and demanded their weapons.
The rebels had just launched a similar assault against 45 Fijian peacekeepers, who surrendered and were taken hostage.
In what proved to be a highly controversial move, the Filipinos defied an order from their UN commander, an Indian, to also surrender, and eventually escaped after four days. The Fijians were released after two weeks.
The Philippines lodged a formal complaint against the UN commander for issuing the surrender order, as President Benigno Aquino heaped praise on his troops.
“Every Filipino soldier there, from the privates to the colonel, showed cleverness and expertise,” Aquino said.
The trainees at the base, in the farming community of Capas about three hours’ drive from Manila, said they were not surprised that their compatriots did not surrender.
“Our guns are like our wives, we don’t give them up,” Nicor said.
Nicor speaks with the experience of having spent most of his career in the southern Philippines, where Muslim rebels and communist guerrillas have been waging two of Asia’s longest insurgencies.
He is the leader of a battalion whose members were selected to join the UN efforts because of their success battling the Muslim rebels, who have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent homeland.
Nicor and the other 330 soldiers in training were due to replace the Golan Heights crew next month.
However Aquino decided to end the Philippine presence in the Golan, contested by Syria and Israel, due to the rising security threats.
The troops were part of the UN force monitoring a 1974 ceasefire in the Golan Heights, where Israel captured 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) in 1967.
More than 100 troops serving with a peacekeeping force in Liberia were also recently pulled out because of fears they may contract Ebola.
This will leave only about 150 Filipino troops wearing the UN’s blue helmets in Haiti, plus a handful of observers in the Ivory Coast, India and Pakistan.
Before Aquino decided to withdraw from the Golan Heights and Liberia, the Philippines had more than 600 troops abroad with the UN, making it one of Asia’s biggest contributors to the global peacekeeping missions.
However the government and military chiefs insist the commitment to the UN is as strong as ever, and Filipinos will continue to be deployed overseas for many years to come.
“The Philippines remains committed to peacekeeping engagements because we are determined to promote international security and stability,” military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said.
While Nicor and the other training troops will not go to the Golan, they will remain on standby for the next UN appeal to guard a global hotspot, according to Ancan, their commander.
The soldiers themselves are keen to head overseas, as joining a UN peacekeeping mission can be lucrative and often lead to promotions on return.
The Philippines has one of Asia’s poorest and most ill-equipped militaries, with a soldier’s salary ranging from just 16,000 pesos ($364) to 60,000 pesos ($1,365) a month.
Peacekeepers get a $900 (39,500-peso) monthly allowance from the UN, on top of their regular salary.
One of the trainees at Capas, Corporal Mynald Cartaciano, 33, said he wanted to build a house for his wife and two babies.
“I want to save up for my family, for my children,” he said.