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Filipino troops pull 'greatest escape' from Syria

MANILA -- Under cover of darkness, 40 Filipino peacekeepers made a daring escape after being surrounded and under fire for seven hours by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights, Philippine officials said Sunday, leaving 44 Fijian troops still in the hands of the al-Qaida-linked insurgents.

“We may call it the greatest escape,” Philippine military chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said.

The peacekeepers became trapped after Syrian rebels entered the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone between Syria and Israel this week, seizing 44 Fijian soldiers and demanding that their Filipino colleagues surrender with their weapons. The Filipinos in two U.N. encampments refused and clashed with the rebels on Saturday. The first group of 35 peacekeepers was then successfully escorted out of a U.N. encampment in Breiqa by Irish and Filipino forces on board armored vehicles.

The remaining 40 peacekeepers were besieged at the second encampment called Rwihana by more than 100 gunmen who rammed the camp's gates with their trucks and fired mortar rounds. The Filipinos returned fire in self-defense, Philippine military officials said.

At one point, Syrian government forces fired artillery rounds from a distance to prevent the Filipino peacekeepers from being overwhelmed, said Col. Roberto Ancan, a Philippine military official who helped monitor the tense standoff from the Philippine capital, Manila, and mobilize support for the besieged troops.

“Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground for seven hours,” Catapang said in a news conference in Manila, adding there were no Filipino casualties. “We commend our soldiers for exhibiting resolve even while under heavy fire.”

As night fell and a cease-fire took hold, the 40 Filipinos fled with their weapons, traveling across the chilly hills for nearly two hours, before meeting up with other U.N. forces, which escorted them to safety early Sunday, Philippine officials said.

During the siege, the Philippine secretaries of defense and foreign affairs, along with the country's top military brass, gathered in a crisis room at the military headquarters in the capital to communicate with the Filipino forces and help guide them out of danger. The Syrian and Israeli governments, along with the United States and Qatar, provided support, the Philippine military said without elaborating.

“If they held their ground, they could have been massacred because they were already running low on ammunition,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told The Associated Press. “So we discussed with them the option of escape and evasion.”

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In this photo released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines Public Affairs Office, Philippine Military Chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang, center, reacts after learning about the safe repositioning of Filipino peacekeepers in Golan Heights. (AP)

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