Freed Filipino peacekeepers to return to Golan

Freed Filipino peacekeepers to return to Golan

Blue hats welcomed back from captivity with traditional Filipino feast in Jordan, amid Israeli fears of mass exodus among UN personnel

Illustrative: A UN peacekeeper from the UNDOF force stands guard on a watch tower at the Quneitra Crossing between the Syrian and Israeli sides of the Golan Heights, on Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
Illustrative: A UN peacekeeper from the UNDOF force stands guard on a watch tower at the Quneitra Crossing between the Syrian and Israeli sides of the Golan Heights, on Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The Philippines remains committed to deploying troops in UN peacekeeping hotspots despite the brief hostage-taking of 21 Filipino soldiers, who were welcomed back to freedom in Jordan with a traditional military feast, military officials said Sunday.

The unarmed Filipino peacekeepers, who were riding in trucks, were abducted after providing water and food to other troops on Wednesday in southern Syria near the Israeli Golan Heights by one of the rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. After negotiations, they were freed on Saturday on Jordan’s border and taken to a hotel in Amman, Philippine officials said.

Raul Hernandez, spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, said Sunday that the plan was for the 21 peacekeepers to stay in Jordan for two days before they return to the Golan Heights.

At the Amman hotel, the peacekeepers, who were treated well by the rebels, were welcomed with a “boodle fight” — a Philippine military mess-hall style of eating, where food is laid usually on banana leaves atop a long table and soldiers eat with their hands, said army Col. Roberto Arcan, who heads the military’s peacekeeping operations center in Manila.

A medical checkup showed the released hostages were all in good health.

“They were in high spirits. We were laughing about their experiences,” Sobejano told The Associated Press by telephone from Amman. “They had a cordial relationship with their captors, who put blankets on them because it was very cold at night.”

“When they were handed over in Jordan, a rebel commander got visibly sad,” he said. “They were really treated as guests.”

Arcan said he talked on the phone with one of the freed peacekeepers, army Maj. Dominador Valerio, who remained in high spirits despite the four-day ordeal. “Please tell my wife I’m OK,” Arcan quoted Valerio as saying, adding he relayed the good news to the army officer’s wife in the Philippines.

Prior to last week’s hostage-taking, a Filipino army major and his driver was briefly held at a checkpoint in the Golan Heights by anti-Assad forces last January but were released after about four hours, Arcan told The Associated Press.

The freed peacekeepers from a 326-member Filipino contingent in the Golan Heights are part of a UN mission known as UNDOF that was set up to monitor a cease-fire in 1974, seven years after Israel captured the plateau and a year after it pushed back Syrian troops trying to recapture the territory.

The truce’s stability has been shaken in recent months, as Syrian mortar shells have hit the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, sparking worries among Israeli officials that the violence may prompt UNDOF to end its mission.

On Friday, eight other Filipino UN observers abandoned their post on the Israel-Syria border and crossed into Israel, amid Israeli fears of a mass exodus of UN personnel from its broder with Syria. The peacekeepers belonged to the same unit whose troops were abducted by rebel forces, and their arrival was coordinated with the IDF.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said “the mission in the Golan needs to review its security arrangements and it has been doing that.”

Currently, there are about 1,150 UNDOF troops in the Golan, from Austria, India and the Philippines, and the soon-to-be-withdrawn Croatians. Since the 1974 establishment of the force, 43 troops and one civilian have died on duty.

Besides UNDOF, whose peacekeepers carry light weapons, there are also troops from the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) stationed on the Golan.

Asked if the incident would prompt the Philippines to withdraw its peacekeeping personnel, military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Burgos said the Filipino deployments would continue, although assessments would be made to better safeguard the peacekeepers in increasingly-hostile areas.

“This is a global commitment,” Burgos said in a news conference in Manila.

More than 600 Philippine security personnel are deployed in nine UN peacekeeping areas worldwide, Arcan said.

President Benigno Aquino III said last week he has asked the military to assess whether large numbers of Filipino peacekeepers should be reduced to help address the country’s growing security needs.

“There is a delicate balance,” Aquino said. “All of these deployments have a vital function. We are part of a global community. If there’s peace in the Middle East, it also helps us.”

But he asked: “Can we afford to send this number of people?”

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