Peacekeepers escape Syrian rebels

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Published: Sunday 31st August 2014 by The News Editor

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Filipino peacekeepers who were surrounded and fired on by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights have made a daring escape under cover of darkness.

The escape by the 40 peacekeepers was announced by the Philippine military chief. But 44 Fijian soldiers remain in the hands of the insurgents.

After coming under rebel attack yesterday, the first group of 35 Filipino peacekeepers was successfully escorted out of the United Nations encampment in Breiqa by Irish and Filipino forces on board armoured vehicles, said General Gregorio Pio Catapang.

Another group of 40 Filipino troops had remained trapped at another encampment, called Rwihana, by more than 100 gunmen who rammed the camp’s gates with their trucks and fired mortar rounds after the Filipinos refused to surrender with their weapons and instead returned fire in self-defence.

Syrian government forces fired artillery rounds from a distance at one point to prevent the Filipino peacekeepers from being overwhelmed by the rebels, said Col Roberto Ancan, another Philippine military official, who helped monitor the tense Golan stand-off and mobilise support for the besieged Filipinos.

“Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground for seven hours,” Gen Catapang said in the Philippine capital, Manila, adding there were no Filipino casualties. “We commend our soldiers for exhibiting resolve even while under heavy fire,” he said.

The 40 Filipinos fled with their weapons from the Rwihana encampment under cover of darkness, travelling across the chilly hills for nearly two hours before meeting up with other UN forces, which escorted them to safety, Philippine officials said.

During the siege, the Philippine secretaries of defence and foreign affairs, along with the country’s top military brass, gathered in a crisis room at the military headquarters in the capital to muster support for the Filipino forces and help ensure their safety.

The Syrian and Israeli governments provided support, Filipino military officials said, without elaborating. “We may call it the greatest escape,” Gen Catapang said.

In New York, The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, (Undof), said shortly after midnight local time, during a ceasefire agreed with the armed elements, all the 40 Filipino peacekeepers left the position.

“The 40 peacekeepers arrived in a safe location one hour later,” Undof said.

The clashes came after Syrian rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, overran the Quneitra crossing on the frontier between Syrian and Israeli controlled parts of the Golan on Wednesday, seizing 44 Fijian peacekeepers.

Published: Sunday 31st August 2014 by The News Editor

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