U.N. denies Golan peacekeepers ordered to hand arms to Syria rebels

UNITED NATIONS Wed Sep 3, 2014 6:49pm EDT

Philippine Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. gestures as he speaks during a forum with members of Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) in Mandaluyong city, Metro Manila September 2, 2014.      REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Philippine Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. gestures as he speaks during a forum with members of Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) in Mandaluyong city, Metro Manila September 2, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Erik De Castro

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. 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.

Filipino army chief General Gregorio Catapang said his soldiers had defended themselves against Islamist rebels last weekend in defiance of an order from their U.N. force commander to surrender their weapons, a move that would be highly controversial in the six-nation, blue-helmeted force.

The U.N.'s under-secretary-general for peacekeeping, Herve Ladsous, denied that any such order was given.

The back-and-forth underlines a rise in tensions in the U.N. peacekeeping force following weekend skirmishes with Islamist militants in Israeli-controlled territory on Syria's southeastern border.

Islamist fighters battling the Syrian army overran last week a crossing point in the line that has separated Israelis from Syrians in the Golan Heights since a 1973 war, the most recent escalation of Syria's civil war, now in its fourth year.

The fighters then turned against U.N. 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 by militants before they escaped.

The militants, believed to be part of an al-Qaeda-linked group known as Nusra Front, are still holding the 45 Fijian members of the United Nations' UNDOF Golan Heights force.

Catapang said that at one point while the Filipinos were trapped, UNDOF Force Commander 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, Ladsous replied, "Never to hand over weapons."

The order was simply "not to shoot," he said.

One U.N. official told Reuters 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 re-supply 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, Ladsous expressed full support for Singha, diplomats who were present told Reuters. Ladsous later told reporters that Singha had "exercised good sound judgment all along" during the crisis.

Ladsous said the United Nations had not confirmed that the militants who attacked the Filipinos and are holding the Fijians belong to Nusra Front.

UNDOF troops were kidnapped twice last year and in both cases were released unharmed.

(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Jason Szep and Leslie Adler)

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