Filipino UNDOF chief of staff quits after peacekeepers' escape
MANILA, Philippines – Filipino Colonel Ezra Enriquez, the chief of staff of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), offered his resignation following his involvement in the unauthorized escape by Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights.
It was a courtesy resignation, said Philippine military chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr. Enriquez was Number 3 in the UNDOF command. It is not clear if the UNDOF accepted his resignation.
"It's just like you have a boss and you are the secretary, you're the chief of staff. If you're not anymore on good talking terms, it would be also an honorable act to file your courtesy resignation," Catapang told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines on Tuesday, September 2.
UNDOF commander Lieutenant General Iqbal Singh Singha earlier ordered about 40 Filipino troops in Position 68 to surrender their firearms to the Syrian rebels, which he repeated even after a 7-hour heavy firefight Saturday night, August 30. The Filipinos defied him.
The Syrian rebels included members of the Al Qaeda allied Al-Nusra Front. There was no guarantee, Catapang earlier said, that they would not meet the fate of the Fijian peacekeepers who were taken hostage after surrendering their firearms.
Enriquez was in a difficult position. He was UNDOF chief of staff and at the same time commander of the Philippine contingent.
Colonel Roberto Ancan, commander of the AFP peacekeeping operations center based in Tarlac, explained: "As the chief of staff of UNDOF, he oversees the staff officers as well as the operation environment of that area. As the national contingent commander, he oversees the deployment of our troops as well as the staff officers."
He remains commander of the Philippine contingent.
DFA in talks with UN
The Philippine foreign affairs department said it is already in talks with the United Nations about Singha.
“The DFA in coordination with Department of National Defense-Armed Forces of the Philippines (DND-AFP) is currently in close consultation with UN on this matter,” DFA spokesman Charles Jose told reporters in a briefing.
“[Points] raised by Lt. Gen. Gregorio Catapang, AFP Chief of Staff will be included in the topics for discussion. DFA is the one who has a representation before the UN,” he added.
Malacañang earlier ordered the military to submit a report to document the events in Golan Heights.
Photos show Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario was inside the war room with about 20 generals – plus Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and former UN commander in Golan Defense Undersecretary Natalio Ecarma III –when the escape mission was apparently being planned. (It was Singha who succeeded Ecarma in 2012.)
Philippine military generals in Manila were certain the Syrian rebels were preparing to "massacre" the Filipino troops in Golan Heights after the 7-hour firefight on Saturday. Singha's surrender order made them suspicious.
"When he told us that in the next attack we should surrender our firearms, we had already an inkling that the rebels will attack us the following morning. We had to make the greatest escape for the soldiers," Catapang said.
The negotiated ceasefire stopped the 7-hour firefight. But that was when the Filipinos – who were already low on ammunition – monitored the rebels regrouping. A surrender was unacceptable and thus the escape.
"When they were already tired attacking us, they again negotiated for a ceasefire. But, you know, we were monitoring them and they were regrouping. Then the order of the UNDOF commander was: Once you are attacked again, the best thing to do is surrender your firearms and put up the white flag. We think that is not negotiable," Catapang said.
"We assesesed that there was reinforcement coming in. We think that the following day, we will be attacked again. That wil be the end of it. We will be massacred, as the good Secretary Voltaire Gazmin stated. We did not want the people to know and we had a news blackout. They were low on ammuntion so we planned for the greatest escape," Catapang added.
Enriquez told Singha about the Filipinos' plan to escape but the Indian dismissed it. "I don't want to hear your plans," Singha supposedly said.
"With God's grace, the area was not foggy. We were able to run in the middle of the night when the rebels were sleeping. We made our greatest escape. It was a difficult escape route. The route we passed through was mined," said Catapang.
After the standoff and the firefight, the Filipinos have evacuated most of their positions in Golan however. One group is manning Position 80 located at the Israel side of the border. The rest are at the UNDOF headquarters in Camp Faouar or at the Philippine battalion headquarters in Camp Ziuoni.
"They're still performing their job. They are staff. I instructed our battalion commander there to have an ongoing training in order to keep our men busy and to perform also their job," Ancan said.
The United Nations was in backchannel talks with the rebels but it was caught between the Syrian rebels who were adamant that the peacekeepers surrender their arms and the Filipinos who refused Singha's orders.
Catapang would have wanted the UNDOF to rescue the Filipinos peacekeepers first and they will later help rescue the Fijians. "We were looking for ways and means to solve the impasse. We told them if you want firearms, you ask the Fijians to give another 44 firearms. Our firearms are not for 'gives,' Catapang said.
The Philippines started deploying peacekeepers to Golan in 2009. There are currently over 300 troops there. Their tour of duty ends in October; Malacañang decided not to deploy any more troops to the area. - Rappler.com