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21 Filipino soldiers freed, stick with UN

THE Philippines remains committed to deploying troops in UN peacekeeping hotspots despite the brief hostage-taking of 21 Filipino soldiers, who were welcomed back to freedom in Jordan with a traditional military feast, officials said Sunday. The unarmed Filipino peacekeepers, who were riding in trucks, were abducted after providing water and food to other troops on Wednesday in southern Syria near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights by one of the rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. After negotiations, they were freed on Saturday on Jordan’s border and taken to a hotel in Amman, Philippine officials said. At the Amman hotel, the peacekeepers, who were treated well by the rebels, were welcomed with a “boodle fight” — a Philippine military mess-hall style of eating, where food is laid usually on banana leaves atop a long table and soldiers eat with their hands, said army Col. Roberto Arcan, who heads the military’s peacekeeping operations center in Manila. Arcan said he talked on the phone with one of the freed peacekeepers, Army Maj. Dominador Valerio, who remained in high spirits despite the four-day ordeal. “Please tell my wife I’m OK,” Arcan quoted Valerio as saying, adding he relayed the good news to the Army officer’s wife in the Philippines. Before last week’s hostage-taking, a Filipino Army major and his driver were briefly held at a checkpoint in the Golan Heights by anti-Assad forces last January but were released after about four hours, Arcan said. The freed peacekeepers from a 326-member Filipino contingent in the Golan Heights are part of a UN mission known as UNDOF that was set up to monitor a cease-fire in 1974, seven years after Israel captured the plateau and a year after it pushed back Syrian troops trying to recapture the territory. The truce’s stability has been shaken in recent months, as Syrian mortar shells have hit the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, sparking worries among Israeli officials that the violence may prompt UNDOF to end its mission. On Friday, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said “the mission in the Golan needs to review its security arrangements and it has been doing that.” Asked if the incident would prompt the Philippines to withdraw its peacekeeping personnel, military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Burgos said the Filipino deployments would continue although assessments would be made to better safeguard the peacekeepers in increasingly-hostile areas. “This is a global commitment,” Burgos said in a news conference in Manila. More than 600 Philippine security personnel are deployed in nine UN peacekeeping areas worldwide, Arcan said. President Benigno Aquino III said last week he has asked the military to assess whether large numbers of Filipino peacekeepers should be reduced to help address the country’s growing security needs. “There is a delicate balance,” Aquino said. “All of these deployments have a vital function. We are part of a global community. If there’s peace in the Middle East, it also helps us.” But he asked: “Can we afford to send this number of people?” The Palace on Sunday welcomed the release of the 21 Filipinos, but said its review of the scale of the country’s involvement in peacekeeping efforts would continue. “The Philippine government and its people express deep appreciation to the Jordanian government and military officials on the successful safe passing over to the Jordanian side of all our 21 Filipino peacekeepers,” the Foreign Affairs Department said in a statement. The statement also emphasized the impartiality of the UN force and called on all parties to respect their freedom of movement and their safety and security. There are 333 Filipino military and police personnel in the Golan Heights. Although trained for deployment with life-threatening risks, the 21 peacekeepers will undergo stress management and post traumatic stress debriefing, Burgos said. The peacekeepers will be going back to their UN mother unit in the Golan Heights to continue their mission and there is no plan as yet for their return to the Philippines, he added. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang released the names of the 21 soldiers: They are Maj. Dominador B. Valerio, Staff Sgt. Jerry Lasquite, Sgt. Freddie Ramos, S/Sgt. Armado Queza, Corporal Marcelo Tagle, Cpl. Jovin Baccay, Cpl. Elson Tunac, Maj. Michael Mangahas, S/Sgt. Lambert Banganan, Sgt. Alan Gabunales, Cpl. Vivencio Raton, Cpl. Ariel Evangelista, Cpt. Xy-Rus Menesses, Technical Sgt. Elmer Esteban, S/Sgt. Felicito Baccay, Sgt. Dionisio Manuel, S/Sgt. Rhae Bolhayon, Cpl. John Paul Yabut, Cpl. Jheraldine Sario, Sgt. Aristotel Selosa, and Cpl. Antonio Cortez III. The peacekeepers were on board a four-vehicle convoy for a resupply mission when they were held at a checkpoint by Syrian rebels. – With Joyce Pangco Panares and AP
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