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UN: Philippine Peacekeepers Safe After 'Greatest Escape'

August 31, 2014

by VOA News

The United Nations said all the Philippine peacekeepers seized by Syrian rebels in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights last week are now safe, but 44 Fijian peacekeepers are still missing.

Philippine military chief General Gregorio Catapang said 40 of its peacekeepers engaged in a seven-hour firefight Saturday with Syrian insurgents, but fled to safety during the night in what he called "the greatest escape."

The 40 peacekeepers were besieged at an encampment called Rwihana, by more than 100 gunmen who rammed the camp's gates with their trucks and fired mortar rounds. The Filipinos returned fire in self-defense, Philippine military officials said.

At one point, Syrian government forces fired artillery rounds from a distance to prevent the Filipino peacekeepers from being overwhelmed, said Col. Roberto Ancan, a Philippine military official who helped monitor the tense standoff from the Philippine capital, Manila, and mobilize support for the besieged troops.

As night fell and a cease-fire took hold, the 40 Filipinos fled with their weapons, traveling across the chilly hills for nearly two hours before meeting up with other U.N. forces, who escorted them to safety early Sunday, Philippine officials said.

"We may call it the greatest escape," Catapang told reporters in Manila.

Another 35 Philippine peacekeepers serving with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF, were extracted earlier from another U.N. position that had come under fire.

Location of troops unknown

The head of the Fijian army, Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga, said Sunday negotiations are being pursued for the release of his country's 44 peacekeepers seized by Syrian insurgents but voiced concerns that it is not known where they are being held.

The U.N. has called for the release of the Fijians.

The al-Qaida linked al-Nusra Front is believed to be holding the peacekeepers.

Three UNDOF positions were besieged after al-Nusra and other rebels, in a battle with Syrian government forces Wednesday, overran the Quneitra crossing between the Syrian- and Israeli-controlled sides of the Golan.

The U.N. peacekeepers serve in a zone of separation on the Golan to monitor an Israel-Syria disengagement agreement reached after their 1973 war.

The U.N. mission in the Golan Heights has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.

Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AP.

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