New York: The United Nations’ peacekeeping chief strongly denied on Wednesday allegations from the Philippines’ army chief that Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights were ordered to surrender their weapons to Islamist militants who had trapped them.
Philippines army chief General Gregorio Catapang said his soldiers had defended themselves against Islamist rebels last weekend in defiance of an order from their UN force commander to surrender their weapons, a move that would be highly controversial in the six-nation, blue-helmeted force.
The UN’s undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, Herve Ladsous, denied that any such order was given.
The back-and-forth underlines a rise in tensions in the UN peacekeeping force following skirmishes between Islamist militants and Syrian government forces on Syria’s south-eastern border.
Islamist fighters overran a crossing point in the line that has separated Israeli troops from Syrians in the Golan Heights since a 1973 war.
The fighters then turned against UN blue helmets from a peacekeeping force that has patrolled the ceasefire line since 1974. After 45 Fijians were captured on Thursday, 72 Filipinos were besieged at two other locations for two days before they escaped.
The militants, believed to be part of an al-Qaeda-linked group known as the Nusra Front, are still holding the 45 Fijian members of the United Nations force on the Golan Heights, known as UNDOF.
General Catapang said that at one point while the Filipinos were trapped, UNDOF force commander Lieutenant-General Iqbal Singh Singha of India ordered the soldiers to surrender their arms to prevent harm from befalling the captured Fijians.
Asked what order was given to the Filipinos, Mr Ladsous replied: “Never to hand over weapons.”
The order was simply “not to shoot”, he said.
One UN official said that no force commander would order his troops to hand over weapons to rebels. If that were to happen, the official said, the commander would “be out of a job” since countries that supply weapons and materiel to the force would be reluctant to resupply the mission.
Several Security Council diplomats said the issue of what orders might have been given was discussed on Wednesday in a closed-door meeting of the 15-nation body.
In that meeting, Mr Ladsous expressed full support for General Singha, diplomats who were present told Reuters. Mr Ladsous later told reporters that General Singha had “exercised good sound judgment all along” during the crisis.
Mr Ladsous said the United Nations had not confirmed that the militants who attacked the Filipinos and are holding the Fijians belong to the Nusra Front.
UNDOF troops were kidnapped twice last year and in both cases were released unharmed.