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UN official defends Indian general in Syrian peacekeeping controversy

By Arul Louis ,

New York: UN’s top peacekeeping official has came out in defence of India’s Lt. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha, who has come in for strong criticism from the Philippines military over his handling of operations in Syria after UN troops had come under attack from rebel forces.

Filipino media reports said that the nation’s peacekeepers had defied orders from Lt. Gen. Singha, who heads the UN Disengagement Observer Force, to surrender to the Syrian rebels, who had captured Fijian soldiers, and escaped after a seven-hour firefight.

UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous backed Lt.Gen. Singha Wednesday, commending his performance and denying that the blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers had been asked to surrender their weapons.

“General Singha exercised good, solid judgement [throughout] the process,” Ladsous said.

“The situation on the ground is a fluid one and the decision was to launch the Quick Reaction Force to extract the peacekeepers,” he said.

Last Thursday, 45 Fijian troops with the Golan Heights-stationed UNDOF, which monitors the ceasefire between Israel and Syria, were captured by a Syrian rebel group, which Security Council president Samantha Power described as “a Security Council-designated terrorist organization”. Other sources have said the group was the al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

The senior Filipino official in the operation, Col. Ezra Enriquez, later resigned as the UNDOF chief of staff, according to media reports in the Philippines.

Philippines defence officials quoted by the Manila Bulletin said Col. Enriquez’s resignation was triggered by disagreements with Lt.Gen. Singha, over orders the latter is said to have issued to Filipino soldiers at two posts to “surrender their firearms and raise the white flag during the standoff that culminated in a fierce firefight between Filipino soldiers and Al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels”.

The Philippines Inquirer, however, reported that “the Filipinos defied Lt. Gen. Singha’s order and instead engaged the rebels in battle and later escaped after a seven-hour fire fight”. The newspaper said that Philippines armed forces’ chief of staff, Gen. Gregorio Pio P. Catapang Jr., told the Inquirer that he approved the escape plans.

Gen. Catapang called for an investigation of Lt. Gen. Singha’s actions but added that he was not demanding his removal, the Bulletin said.

Media reports in the Philippines said that Lt. Gen. Singha had wanted the Filipino troops to surrender in hope the action would help protect the captured Fijians. Gen. Catapang said the UNDOF commander “should not make the soldiers a sacrificial pawn in order for the Fijians allegedly to be freed by the hostage takers or kidnappers or rebels”.

(Arul Louis can be contacted at [email protected])