Philippine UN Peacekeepers Safe After 'Greatest Escape'

All 75 Filipino troops serving as UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights are safe after the last batch slipped away under cover of night from besieging Syrian rebels, military spokesmen said today.

Military chief General Gregorio Catapang called it "the greatest escape," and praised the soldiers.

"Although they were surrounded and outnumbered they held their ground," he told reporters.

The troops are part of a UN peacekeeping force which has been stationed in the Golan Heights since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria.

"Everyone is in a safe position. We left our (old) position but we brought all our arms," said Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala.

An initial group of 35 Filipino troops were picked up from their position by Irish UN soldiers in armoured vehicles yesterday after Syrian rebels attacked their comrades positioned about four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) away, said the Philippine military.

The remaining 40 soldiers engaged in a "seven-hour firefight" with rebels who tried to ram the gates with pick-up trucks carrying anti-aircraft guns. The troops later walked to safety to a UN position just over two kilometres away.

In a statement, the UN said the 40 Filipino peacekeepers withdrew shortly after midnight "during a ceasefire agreed with the armed elements".

They later moved to Camp Ziouani behind UN lines.

"There is no more standoff. All are safe," Zagala said.

The troops, burdened by their equipment and the cold weather, walked for about an hour and 40 minutes in the dark to reach safety, he said in Manila.

Military chief Catapang said the Syrian and Israeli governments had supported the Filipinos in upholding "the integrity of the area of separation.''

Catapang also credited the US and Qatar governments for helping safeguard the blue helmets but did not elaborate.

"The Armed Forces of the Philippines and the United Nations will not compromise the safety and security of our troops while in the pursuit of their duties.

"It is in our national interest to prioritise their safety without abandoning our commitment to international security," he said.

The head of Philippine peacekeeping operations, Colonel Roberto Ancan, said the Syrians had provided "indirect fire support" that took the pressure off the besieged Filipinos.

The peacekeepers were besieged by rebels Thursday but defied demands that they give up their weapons.

Emerging story. Watch this space for updates as more details come in
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