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Filipino peacekeepers pull 'greatest escape' from Syrian rebels; 44 Fijians still held hostage

Under cover of darkness, 40 Filipino peacekeepers made a daring escape after being surrounded and under fire for seven hours by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights, Philippine officials said Sunday, leaving 44 Fijian troops still in the hands of the al-Qaida-linked insurgents.

"We may call it the greatest escape," Philippine military chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said.

The peacekeepers became trapped after Syrian rebels entered the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone between Syria and Israel this week, seizing 44 Fijian soldiers and demanding that their Filipino colleagues surrender with their weapons. The Filipinos in two U.N. encampments refused and clashed with the rebels on Saturday. The first group of 35 peacekeepers was then successfully escorted out of a U.N. encampment in Breiqa by Irish and Filipino forces on board armored vehicles.

The remaining 40 peacekeepers were besieged at the second 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.

"Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground for seven hours," Catapang said in a news conference in Manila, adding there were no Filipino casualties. "We commend our soldiers for exhibiting resolve even while under heavy fire."

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, 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 communicate with the Filipino forces and help guide them out of danger. The Syrian and Israeli governments, along with the United States and Qatar, provided support, the Philippine military said without elaborating.

"If they held their ground, they could have been massacred because they were already running low on ammunition," Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told The Associated Press. "So we discussed with them the option of escape and evasion."

In New York, The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF, whose mission is to monitor a 1974 disengagement in the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria, reported that shortly after midnight local time, during a cease-fire agreed with the armed elements, all the 40 Filipino peacekeepers left their position and "arrived in a safe location one hour later."

The Filipinos escaped during the cease-fire because they refused to agree to surrender as the insurgents demanded, Philippine military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.

The clashes erupted after Syrian rebel groups — including al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front — overran the Quneitra crossing on the frontier between Syrian and Israeli controlled parts of the Golan on Wednesday, seizing 44 Fijians.

The SITE Intelligence Group reported that the Nusra Front had posted a statement on its Twitter account Saturday taking responsibility for detaining the Fijian peacekeepers. The Nusra Front stated that the Fijian detainees "are in a safe place, and they are in good health, and that we have given them what they need of food and treatment."

The Nusra Front also posted a photo showing what it said were the captured Fijians in their military uniforms along with 45 identification cards, SITE said.

SITE added that the Nusra Front claimed the Fijians were seized in retaliation for the U.N.'s ignoring "the daily shedding of the Muslims' blood" in Syria" and even colluding with Syrian President Bashar Assad's army "to facilitate its movement to strike the vulnerable Muslims" through a buffer zone in the Golan Heights. The SITE report could not be independently confirmed.

The U.N. mission has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines. A number of countries has withdrawn their peacekeepers due to the escalating violence.

Philippine officials said Filipino forces would remain in Golan until their mission ends in October and not withdraw prematurely following the rebel attacks and the capture of the Fijian peacekeepers.

Both U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council strongly condemned Saturday's attack on peacekeepers' positions and the ongoing detention of the Fijian peacekeepers.

The Nusra Front has recently seized hostages to exchange for prisoners detained in Syria and Lebanon.

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Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Beirut, Oliver Teves in Manila, Philippines, Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin and Peter Enav in Jerusalem contributed to this report.