75 Philippine UN peacekeepers defy Syria rebels in Golan Heights standoff

MANILA (AFP) - Dozens of heavily armed Philippine peacekeepers defied Syrian rebels on Friday in a Golan Heights standoff, hours after the fighters took hostage 43 Fijian soldiers there, the Filipinos' commander said.

Seventy-five Filipino troops were defending two fortified posts in the UN-patrolled zone after armed groups surrounded them on Thursday and demanded they give up their weapons, Colonel Roberto Ancan told reporters in Manila.

Ancan, the commander of the Philippines' peacekeeping operations division, said no shots had been fired during the standoff, but that his troops were prepared to engage in combat.

"We can use deadly force in defence of the UN facilities," Ancan said. "I (would) just like to emphasise our troops are well-armed, they are well-trained... they are well-disciplined warrior peacekeepers."

The military said the soldiers were occupying UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) posts about four kilometres apart in the buffer zone between Syria and Israel that was created after a 1974 ceasefire.

The UN earlier said 81 Filipino peacekeepers were surrounded, but Ancan said there were only 40 Filipinos in one post and 35 in the other.

On Wednesday, Syrian rebels, including militants from the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, stormed one section of the buffer zone and exchanged fire with Israeli troops.

A day later, the fighters captured 43 Fijians, forcing them to surrender their weapons then taking them hostage.

Ancan said the rebels used an English-speaking Fijian hostage to relay their demand to the Filipino peacekeepers, who refused and stood their ground.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino described the situation in the Golan Heights as "tense". But in brief comments to reporters, Aquino sought to calm fears about the fate of the troops.

"So far, we should not worry. The news is that the situation looks stable," Aquino said.

Israel seized 1,200 square kilometres of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War, then annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.

The UN peacekeeping force has been stationed there since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria. There are currently 1,200 UNDOF peacekeepers: from the Philippines, Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands.

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