Catapang defends Pinoys' refusal to surrender

Posted at 09/02/14 9:35 PM

MANILA - The Philippine armed forces chief defended on Tuesday the action by dozens of Filipino peacekeepers to carry out a daring escape after they defied a U.N. commander's orders and refused to surrender their firearms to militant fighters in the Middle East.

Philippine military chief-of-staff, General Gregorio Pio Catapang, said following such an order could have led to the massacre of the soldiers and that the Philippine government was considering filing a protest.

"Unfortunately they really wanted us to surrender and give our firearms in position 68. So it's still to be investigated why the order of General Singha was there will be no reinforcement - because he was already there, we were monitoring him. And then all of a sudden he changed his mind and then another negotiation came in, and when he told us that if the next attack comes in, surrender your firearms, put up the white flag - so we had already an inkling that the rebels would attack us the following morning, so we had to make the greatest escape for the soldiers," Catapang said.

"I think that was unacceptable, because General Singha should not make the soldiers a sacrificial pawn in order for the Fijians, allegedly, to be freed by the hostage takers or the kidnappers or the rebels," he added.

He said the Filipino troops at position 68 engaged in battle with the fighters for seven hours, and were able to escape through a minefield when the fighters had regrouped and fallen asleep. A second group of Filipino troops surrounded by fighters at another position were picked up by an Irish contingent.

Catapang said the Philippine government may look into filing a protest against the U.N. commander, General Iqbal Singh Singha, from India, who ordered the forces to surrender. He said Singha did not want to hear plans of escape.

"What we were instructed by president during a meeting together with the secretary of national defence was to document blow by blow events that occurred, and it will be up to the higher authorities to decide whether there will be, based on the report, if there will be a protest," Catapang said.

The wives of two soldiers caught in the firefight said they were relieved upon hearing news of their husbands' return to safety on Sunday (August 31).

"I was so scared, because we didn't know how their fate would turn out," said Grace Corpuz, wife of Corporal Michael Allan Corpuz, who has spent 11 years in the army.

Mila Escarcha said the last time she feared her husband, Staff Sergeant Noli Escarcha's life, was when he battled insurgents in southern Philippines. Escarcha has served in the army for 24 years.

"My fear was so great. I was telling him (husband), when he was already safe and I messaged him, I said 'you know, even if they pay you thousands of dollars, it would not compensate for the worry I felt and the tears I shed. No amount of money could pay for that," Escarcha said.

The Islamist fighters also seized dozens of Fijian soldiers serving as U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights last week. They are demanding that their group be removed from a global terrorism list and that compensation be paid for members killed in fighting, the head of Fiji's army said on Tuesday.

Brigadier-General Mosese Tikoitoga said negotiations had been stepped up between the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and a new U.N. negotiation team was now in place in Syria.

"Our troops are still in an undisclosed position. The rebels are not telling us where the troops are but they continue to reassure us they are being well-looked after. They've been fed well and they've been kept safe. They also told us they are ensuring that they are taken out of battle areas. They are in safe areas," Tikoitoga told media in Suva.

Heavy fighting erupted on Monday (September 1) between the Syrian army and Islamist fighters near where 45 Fijian peacekeepers were captured and scores of their fellow U.N. Blue Helmets from the Philippines escaped after resisting capture. The number of Fijians captured had previously been put at 44.

Syria's three-year civil war reached the frontier with Israeli-controlled territory last week when Islamist fighters overran a crossing point in the line that has separated Israelis from Syrians in the Golan Heights since a 1973 war.

The fighters then turned on the U.N. Blue Helmets from a peacekeeping force that has patrolled the ceasefire line for 40 years. After the Fijians were captured on Thursday (August 28), more than 70 Filipinos spent two days besieged at two locations before reaching safety.

The Nusra Front, a Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda, says it is holding the peacekeepers because the U.N. force protects Israel.

Tikoitoga said the group was demanding compensation for three fighters killed in the confrontation with the U.N. peacekeepers, as well as humanitarian assistance to the people of Ruta, a stronghold of the group on outskirts of Damascus, and the removal of the organisation from the U.N. list of banned terrorist organisations.

"We've been assured by U.N. headquarters that the U.N. will bring all its resources to bear to ensure the safe return of our soldiers and for that we are truly thankful that we have the full support of the UN and the Secretary General of the UN," the Fijian army chief said.

The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force includes 1,223 troops from India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands as well as the Fijians and Filipinos.

The Philippines has said it will pull out its forces by October, when their mission ends.