New York: The head of UN peacekeeping operations has commended General Iqbal Singh Singha, the Indian force commander of the UN mission in the Golan Heights, for his "strong leadership" and "good and sound judgement" during a hostage crisis in the area last week.
Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous backed Singha, who is being criticised by the Philippine military which said he should be investigated for allegedly asking Filipino troops to surrender to the Syrian rebels who had attacked and surrounded their camp.
Ladsous reiterated his commitment to Singha's leadership and said the Indian military official "displayed very strong professionalism and very strong leadership in making decisions all along that I think helped.
"And he is utterly to be commended and I place on the record my full trust in the way he performed his duty," he told reporters here yesterday.
Forty-five Fijian peacekeepers, serving with the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), monitoring a ceasefire established in 1974 between Israel and Syria, were detained on August 28 by armed elements of the Syrian opposition in the vicinity of Al Qunaytirah.
The Syrian rebels, including fighters from the al Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, stormed the crossing Al Qunaytirah sparking an exchange of gunfire with Israeli troops.
In a separate incident, 72 Filipino peacekeepers had been surrounded by armed elements in two different locations in the Golan and were later safely relocated.
On whether the Filipino peacekeepers were under orders not to resist, Ladsous said they were never under such specific orders.
"You would realise though that the situation on the ground is a fast moving one. There is time for decisive action and that was, in particular, a decision to engage a Quick Reaction Force to extract people," Ladsous said.
"Then there are times when other considerations, including the one about the safety of the people come in, and then you have to possibly refrain from proactive stands -- that means pulling back really -- because that might put other people in danger."
"It's a matter of judgement, but I would say again that General Singha has exercised good and sound judgement all along that process," he said.
When asked that Philippines military sources have insisted that Singha had ordered the Filipino peacekeepers to hand over their weapons to the militants, Ladsous said the peacekeepers were never given such orders.
"Never to hand over weapons. To leave the weapons quiet so as to give some space, but never to hand over the weapons," he said, adding that the order was "not to shoot".
On Singha rejecting the resignation of his Chief of Staff Colonel Ezra Enriquez because of the circumstances surrounding the Filipino confrontation with the Syrian rebels, Ladsous said Enriquez has tendered in his resignation, "but that is a matter for them. What counts is that...Very importantly, the Filipino Peacekeepers, who were detained in two locations, were in a position to come to safety".
"Part of them thanks to an extraction action, which was launched at the initiative of the Force Commander," Ladsous said.
He added that the Quick Reaction Force of UNDOF moved in and secured the return of a first group of Filipino peacekeepers to their base while the second left on foot during the night.
Ladsous said it is "very important" that the mandate of UNDOF should continue against the backdrop of the challenging situation in the region.
"Clearly it is a very challenging situation. It is one in which I must say our peacekeepers have shown considerable steadfastness and courage at all levels," he said mentioning in particular Singha's leadership.
He said the mission is "sparing no effort" to secure the release of the 45 detained peacekeepers.
"It has been an ongoing exercise reviewing on a constant basis the way our colleagues in UNDOF are performing duties in that part of the world," he added.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council had strongly condemned the detention of United Nations peacekeepers serving in the Golan amid increased fighting in the area between Syrian Government forces and armed elements, and demanded their immediate release.
The 15-nation in Council in a press statement called for the "immediate and unconditional" release of the 45 peacekeepers while Ladsous said the UN is continuing to look at ways to enhance safety and security procedures in what has become a "very challenging situation".
Peacekeepers serving with UNDOF monitor the 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel after their 1973 war.
In June, the Security Council extended the mission`s mandate until December 31, 2014.
As of July 2014, there are 1,223 peacekeepers from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands, and the Philippines serving in UNDOF.