MANILA, Philippines --- Twenty-one Filipino peacekeepers assigned to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights were abducted by Syrian rebels, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) confirmed yesterday.
The DFA said the Philippine government strongly condemned the detention of the 21 Filipinos and is now coordinating closely with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
“All Filipino peacekeepers are reported to be unharmed and that negotiations are underway to secure their safe release,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. del Rosario said in a statement.
The UN said it is trying to negotiate the release of the Filipino soldiers, according to diplomats. But a rebel spokesman said the troops would be held until Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces pull back from a Golan village.
About 30 armed fighters stopped an UNDOF convoy in the ceasefire zone, UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey told reporters. UNDOF has been monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974.
“The UN observers were on a regular supply mission and were stopped near Observation Post 58, which had sustained damage and was evacuated this past weekend following heavy combat in close proximity, at Al Jamlah,” he added.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said the 21 peacekeepers were seized. In a statement, he called for their “immediate” release and demanded that the Syrian government and rebels respect “UNDOF’s freedom of movement and security.”
President Benigno S. Aquino III said the abducted Filipino peacekeepers are unharmed and may be released on Thursday following negotiations led by the UN.
In the light of the incident, the President ordered a review of the government’s future deployment of peacekeepers to ensure their safety.
“The main concern of the Philippine government at this time is to ensure the safety and well-being of our peacekeepers,” Del Rosario added. “We wish to reiterate that UNDOF’s freedom of movement and safety and security must be respected by all parties in the area.”
Those abducted are part of the 300 Filipino peacekeepers stationed in Golan Heights.
The deployment of Philippine troops in the Golan Heights is part of the country’s international commitment to the UN. In 2009, the Philippines began sending troops in the region when the Polish contingent relinquished its command to the Philippines to assume another peacekeeping operation.
Manila’s involvement in peacekeeping operations began in December 1962, when then UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold called on the Philippines to join other member-states in supporting the ongoing UN operations in the Congo.
Then President Diosdado Macapagal heeded that call and immediately committed the 9th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the Philippine Air Force.
The unit, popularly known as the Limbas Squadron, was made up of six Canadian-made F86-E Sabre jets and 44 men under Lt. Col. Jose Rancudo.
The Limbas Squadron spent four months in Katanga where it flew reconnaissance flights in support of Israeli peacekeepers on the ground. The Filipino squadron also flew persuasion flights alongside Iranian and Swedish air units that were also serving under the UN.
The Philippine commitment to UN peacekeeping is underscored by the presence of 922 military and police personnel serving as military observers, staff officers, police officers and members of formed contingents in Cote d’Ivoire, Darfur, the Golan Heights, Haiti, Kashmir, Liberia, South Sudan and Timor-Leste. (With reports from AFP and Genalyn D. Kabiling)