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Reports: Filipino UN Peacekeepers Escape into Israel

Philippine UN peacekeepers in the Golan clashed with Syrian rebels; others from Fiji still being held.
By Gil Ronen, AFP
First Publish: 8/30/2014, 7:59 PM

Filipino UN peacekeepers
Filipino UN peacekeepers
AFP file

According to reports in Syria, dozens of UN peacekeepers from the Philippines who had been holed up in two military positions in the Syrian Golan escaped io Israel Saturday. The border gates were opened up to let them in.

They had been surrounded by Syrian rebels from the Nusra Front.

Filipino UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights clashed with Syrian rebels Saturday, Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin said in Manila.

He said in an SMS statement to reporters that the Filipino troops had been "extricated" from one of their two positions but added that another group of Filipino soldiers "is now under attack".

He was referring to two positions on the Golan Heights where more than 70 Filipino troops had previously been surrounded by Syrian rebels.

The peacekeepers were besieged by rebels on Thursday but defied demands that they give up their weapons. On Friday Syrian fighters took 43 Fijian soldiers hostage on the Golan Heights.

Asked if there was a fresh firefight Saturday, Gazmin replied: "Yes".

He said the clash took place at "6am, Syria time," but added that "morale is high" among the troops.

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala later told AFP that "there is still an ongoing standoff but there was a firefight earlier today".

"All our troops are safe," he said, adding that the defense minister and head of the military were monitoring developments. He declined to elaborate further on the incident.

Earlier Saturday, a spokeswoman for President Benigno Aquino said he was "keeping a close watch" on the fate of the troops who were serving as part of the peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights.

The Philippine military earlier said there were 75 besieged troops but the UN later said there were only 72.

The head of Filipino troops on UN missions Colonel Roberto Ancan said in Manila on Friday that "we can use deadly force in defence of the UN facilities".

Syrian rebels, including fighters from the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, stormed a Golan Heights crossing on Wednesday, sparking an exchange of gunfire with Israeli troops.

The rebels then captured 44 Fijian members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Syrian side on Thursday, forcing them to surrender their weapons and taking them hostage.

Ancan said the rebels then used an English-speaking Fijian hostage to relay their demand to the Filipino peacekeepers to give up their weapons, but they refused.

Fiji military officials confirmed Saturday they no longer know the whereabouts of 44 peacekeepers captured by Al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights.

"Their whereabouts at this stage, unfortunately, I cannot confirm," Brigadier Mosese Tikoitoga told reporters after speaking to the head of the UN team negotiating for their release.

"They confirmed that our men are safe and they are all well. (But) they have been moved to a location out of the bombardment range of any security forces or the Syrian security forces.

"It is out of the UN territory. But again it's the word of the group. We've got no verification what so ever, no communication but we're only relaying the message that was delivered to us by the negotiators."

The Fijians were captured on Wednesday when armed Syrian rebels linked to the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, stormed a Golan Heights crossing. 

The soldiers are serving in the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) stationed in a buffer zone to monitor a ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974.

The UN has revised an earlier figure from 43 to 44 Fijians captured and from 75 to 72 Filipinos after checking leave records with the mission.