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UNITED NATIONS/MANILA (Reuters) - Early on Aug. 28, al Qaeda-linked militants fighting government forces in Syria crossed a ceasefire line in the Golan Heights on Israel's border and seized 45 Fijians serving in a United Nations peacekeeping force.
The leader of a nearby U.N. contingent from the Philippines telephoned a commanding officer in Manila. They were surrounded, the leader said. Should they surrender and risk being kidnapped by the rebels or hold their ground?
The U.N. force commander, General Iqbal Singh Singha of India, fearing Fijian lives could be in jeopardy if the Filipinos engaged in a firefight, ordered the Filipinos to hold their fire. In Manila, General Gregorio Catapang gave different orders to his subordinate thousands of miles away in the Middle East: Stand your ground. Don't surrender.
For three days, Filipino troops fended off hundreds of rebels from the Islamic militant Nusra Front group, killing at least three on the final day before escaping under cover of darkness to Israel. The Fijians were released on Thursday after two weeks of negotiation.
U.N. officials and diplomats say the incident with the Philippine peacekeepers highlights a fundamental problem with peacekeeping missions, one that may be impossible to resolve. National peacekeeping contingents retain allegiance to their commanders at home and when bullets fly, they have no problem disobeying U.N. force commanders and taking orders from home.
Based on interviews with U.N. officials, diplomats and Philippine military sources, including an official report on the incident from Manila, Reuters has pieced together a narrative of the events of Aug. 28 to Aug. 30 leading up to the dramatic escape of Philippine troops from the militants' siege.
It was not the first time that fighting from Syria’s three-year-old civil war spilled onto Israel’s doorstep. But it was the most violent incident in the Golan Heights since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011.
The 1,223-strong six-nation U.N. force, known as UNDOF, has been on the Golan Heights since 1974. Its job is to monitor the ceasefire line between Syria and Israel - the so-called disengagement zone that bars both Israeli and Syrian troops. The two countries have officially been at war since the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war but their border has been largely quiet.
Before the Syrian war broke out, blue-helmeted U.N. observers stationed in the mountainous region had a relatively easy job. For years their main enemy was boredom.
That changed in March 2013, when Syrian rebels kidnapped 21 Filipino peacekeepers. All were released unharmed, but two months later rebels kidnapped and released a handful of others. The spillover of violence from Syria's civil war prompted Austria, Croatia and Japan to pull out of UNDOF.
The Philippines also considered pulling out but stayed at the U.N.'s request. Fiji, Nepal and Ireland agreed to help fill UNDOF's depleted ranks and the U.N. Security Council toughened the mission's rules of engagement to give its peacekeepers more freedom to fight back when under threat.
After the 2013 kidnappings, countries providing troops complained that carrying a pistol was insufficient for a shifting battleground where rebels have shoulder-launched missiles and heavy machine guns. They wanted armored vehicles and heavier weapons - and the freedom to shoot to kill, if necessary, when under attack.
In June of last year, when the U.N. Security Council approved its six-month renewal of UNDOF's mandate, the council emphasized "the need to enhance the safety and security of UNDOF." It also endorsed U.N. recommendations for UNDOF to change its "posture and operations," allowing troops to defend themselves when attacked. The Security Council language on the UNDOF mandate was typically vague about the lengths to which peacekeepers could go in their own defense, but the new flexibility granted to the force did satisfy the demands of the council members and UNDOF troop contributing countries.
The Filipinos put those tougher rules of engagement to work on Aug. 30 when they killed three rebels in a firefight.
After encircling the troops on Aug. 28, Nusra militants communicated to the Filipinos and to the Fijians, who were being held elsewhere at an unknown location, an offer of safe passage if they handed over their weapons. The Filipinos did not trust the militants to keep their word. Philippine military officials in Manila have said openly that General Singha ordered the surrounded troops to raise a white flag, abandon their positions and leave their guns behind for Nusra, a group that the U.N. Security Council last year added to its blacklist of al Qaeda-linked terrorists.
Taking their orders from home, they ignored General Singha. Rather than abandoning their position and weapons, they stayed put and prepared to defend themselves while Philippine military officials and their UNDOF contingent discussed escape plans.
U.N. officials vehemently denied there was an order for the peacekeepers to leave their guns behind, especially as Nusra is subject to a U.N. arms embargo. What U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous has acknowledged is that the Filipinos were ordered to hold their fire to avoid jeopardizing the lives of the Fijians. He voiced total confidence in General Singha's decisions during the standoff.
Two days later, tensions escalated. The Nusra militants were growing impatient at the negotiations with UNDOF. The United Nations had already fulfilled one of Nusra's conditions by issuing a statement that said the world body was told the Fijians were seized "for their own protection."
But the U.N. statement was not enough for the rebels.
Around 6 a.m. on Aug. 30 the rebels attacked position 68 in the disengagement zone. Militants on three pickup trucks with mounted weapons attempted to ram through the steel gate of the encampment but were unable to break through. The Filipinos fired on the rebels but began to run low on ammunition. Sporadic exchanges of fire lasted for seven hours.
In the meantime, Filipino troops supported by an Irish armored column rushed to nearby position 69 to extract 32 trapped Filipinos. The armored column was fired upon but the U.N. peacekeepers did not fire back. The operation succeeded.
There were still 40 Filipinos trapped at position 68, along with the 45 Fijian hostages elsewhere. The United Nations tried to link the groups in negotiations but Nusra refused, saying they were separate issues.
A ceasefire was reached that would run until negotiations were to resume at 9 a.m. on Aug. 31. Nusra reinforced its siege as more than 20 vehicles with over 200 rebels arrived on the scene to prevent the 40 remaining Filipinos breaking out of position 68 the way their compatriots had done at position 69. But the reinforcement failed to keep the Filipinos penned in. The blue helmets had a new plan.
Under cover of darkness, Filipino soldiers at position 68 quietly cut the barbed wire and one-by-one scaled a perimeter wall three meters (yards) tall, crossed a mine field and walked 2.3 kms (1.4 miles) to the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. The last man reached safety two hours later.
Catapang jubilantly described it to reporters as "the greatest escape".
U.N. officials acknowledge a sharp disagreement between Singha and the Filipinos, and several accused the Filipinos of thinking only of their own safety and ignoring that of the Fijians held captive.
"The force commander was not only thinking of the security and safety of the Filipinos, but also of the Fijians. Resolving only one issue could affect the resolution of the second problem," said a senior U.N. official.
Additional reporting by correspondents in Manila, Israel and elsewhere; Editing by Howard Goller