MOSCOW, September 19 (RIA Novosti) - All 344 peacekeepers from the Philippines located on the Golan Heights’ border between Syria and Israel are set to return home in the next two weeks, ahead of the official end of their tour of duty, an information officer for the country’s armed forces announced.
Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told reporters that “the deteriorating security situation” and the necessity to protect the soldiers made the repatriation necessary, despite the UN Secretary General’s requests that they serve out their mission, Xinhua reported.
Today 244 will leave, and the rest will head home within the next couple of weeks.
The UN’s entire Disengagement Observer Force peacekeeping contingent was pulled from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights border earlier this week. Zagala explained that the “logistical constraints” of the repositioning of UN forces made it “practical that the Philippine contingent be repatriated earlier than expected.”
The Philippines’ 7th contingent, deployed under the command of the DOF, had run into problems last month, when several of their positions were surrounded and attacked by Syrian rebels from the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nursa Front.
The rebels, who held 45 Fijian peacekeepers hostage who had been taken earlier, demanded that the Filipinos give up their weapons. The Filipinos refused, resulting in fighting. The first group of surrounded soldiers was rescued by elements of the Irish contingent, and the other group broke out independently in the dead of night after a ceasefire with the rebels. Philippine news sources have called the operation “the greatest escape” and praised the bravery of their forces.
The early withdrawal may be the result of a conflict between Indian UN DOF Commander Lieutenant General Iqbal Singha and Philippines DOF Chief of Staff Colonel Ezra Enriquez, who resigned and returned home earlier this month. According to the Filipinos, Singha had asked the contingent to give up their arms, whereas Singha said that he had asked them only “not to shoot”. The UN’s Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon supported Singha’s position.
Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino had earlier said that his requests for bolstered security arrangements for the peacekeepers, including heavier weapons, had been turned down. The Philippines also requested a UN review of “operational and tactical issues” related to peacekeeping deployments, including the procedures in place for kidnapping and siege incidents.
Even before the firefight and the ensuing war of words, the Philippines’ military had noted that it would no longer be sending contingents to the Golan Heights. Filipino forces have faced problems with Syrian rebels since March 2013, when 21 members of their contingent were captured. Since then the Filipinos, together with the rest of the 1,270-member UN force from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands, have faced attacks on their positions. Many of their posts have been captured, their patrols have been fired on and UN checkpoints have been seeded with landmines.
The UN Security Council met behind closed doors this week to discuss the Golan Heights’ security situation.
The UNDOF has been operating in the area since the 1974 ceasefire between Syria and Israel.