MANILA, Philippines – Under cover of darkness, 40 Filipino peacekeepers who were surrounded and came under fire by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights made a daring escape, the Philippine military chief Sunday, while 44 Fijian soldiers remained in the hands of the insurgents.
After coming under rebel attack Saturday, the first group of 35 Filipino peacekeepers was successfully escorted out of U.N. encampment in Breiqa by Irish and Filipino forces on board armored vehicles, said Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang and other military officials.
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-defense, Philippine military officials said.
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 standoff and mobilize support for the besieged Filipinos.
"Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground for seven hours," Catapang said in a news conference in the Philippine capital, Manila, adding there were no Filipino casualties. "We commend our soldiers for exhibiting resolve even while under heavy fire."
The 40 Filipinos fled with their weapons from the Rwihana encampment under cover darkness overnight, traveling across the chilly hills for nearly two hours, before meeting up with other U.N. forces, which escorted them to safety early Sunday, Philippine officials said.
During the siege, the Philippine secretaries of defense 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," Catapang said.
In New York, The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF, reported that shortly after midnight local time, during a cease-fire agreed with the armed elements, all the 40 Filipino peacekeepers left the position 68
"The 40 peacekeepers arrived in a safe location one hour later," the statement 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. The Fijian peacekeepers remain under rebel custody.