Philippines may pull peacekeepers from Syria's occupied Golan Heights

AFP , Friday 10 May 2013

The Philippines examines withdrawing from the UN peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights after Syrian rebels seized four Filipino peacekeepers

In this image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a man reads a statement as four abducted Filipino UN peacekeepers are seen in Daraa, Syria, on Thursday, May 9, 2013 (Photo: AP)

The Philippines said Friday it may quickly withdraw from a United Nations peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights because of security concerns, following the abduction of four Filipino troops.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said he had made a recommendation to President Benigno Aquino to pull out the more than 300 troops from the area, and that it was up to the president to make the final decision.

"As soon as he says go, we will undertake to do that as soon as possible," del Rosario told reporters.

Syrian rebels seized the four Filipino peacekeepers at an observation post in the Golan Heights on Tuesday, two months after 21 Filipino soldiers were abducted by the same group and held for four days.

"The people that abducted our peacekeepers were actually under siege and they are using our people to get themselves out of the situation they find themselves in. That thing is not for us," del Rosario said.

"We don't want to expose our people any further, any more than we need to."

Del Rosario said he understood it normally required a three-month notice period to withdraw troops from a United Nations peacekeeping mission.

"But under the circumstances, where people are in jeopardy -- obviously our people are in jeopardy -- we may try to get... the UN to release them earlier if that is possible," he said.

Presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said Aquino was considering the recommendation and del Rosario's fears about the peacekeepers' safety were valid, although no decision on a withdrawal had been made.

"This is the second time this has happened so there are legitimate concerns about the safety of our peacekeepers," Carandang said in a text message to AFP when asked to comment on del Rosario's recommendation.

The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has been monitoring a ceasefire in the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria since 1974.

The ceasefire zone has become increasingly dangerous because of the Syrian war, with government forces and rebels fighting inside the area.

The UNDOF has about 1,000 peacekeepers and civilian staff from Austria, India, Morocco, Moldova and the Philippines.

Del Rosario said there were about 340 Filipino troops in the peacekeeping force.

The Syrian rebel group, which calls itself the "Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade", has said it is holding the peacekeepers "for their own safety".

On Wednesday, the UN pulled all peacekeepers out of the observation post in the Al Jamlah zone where the four Filipinos were abducted.

"(The UNDOF is) operating in an extremely dangerous and unusual environment," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said, adding that there were no indications the rebels had harmed the abducted Filipinos.

"Efforts are still under way to secure their release," he said.

Philippine military spokesman Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan said in Manila on Friday that UN peacekeepers had been in "continuous talks" with the hostage takers, but gave no details on the negotiations.

Nesirky said on Wednesday he had not heard about any country seeking to withdraw from the force. Security measures were already stepped up after the March abductions and many patrols curtailed. 

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