Under cover of darkness, 40 Filipino peacekeepers escaped their besieged outpost in the Golan Heights after a seven-hour gunbattle with Syrian rebels, Philippine officials said today. Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents still hold captive 44 Fijian troops.The getaway, combined with the departure of another entrapped group of Filipino troops, marked a major step forward in a crisis that erupted on Thursday when Syrian rebels began targeting the peacekeeping forces. After insurgents from the Nusra Front seized the Fijian peacekeepers and surrounded their Filipino colleagues, 35 peacekeepers were successfully escorted out of a UN encampment in Breiqa by Irish and Filipino forces on board armored vehicles.
But another 40 peacekeepers were besieged at a second encampment 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. "Although they were surrounded and outnumbered, they held their ground for seven hours," Philippine military chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said, adding that there were no Filipino casualties. As night fell and a ceasefire took hold, the 40 Filipinos fled, traveling for nearly two hours before meeting up with other UN forces, who escorted them to safety, Philippine officials said. "We may call it the greatest escape," Catapang told reporters in Manila. (More Golan Heights stories.)