Philippines may pull peacekeepers from Golan

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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.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said he had recommended to President Benigno Aquino to pull out the more than 300 troops from the area, and it was up to him to make the 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, only two months after 21 Filipino soldiers were abducted by the same group 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 three months’ notice 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 U.N. to release them earlier if that is possible,” he said.

A 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 yet 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 U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has been monitoring a ceasefire in the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria since 1974.

It has about 1,000 peacekeepers and civilian staff from Austria, India, Morocco and Moldova, as well as 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 U.N. pulled all peacekeepers out of the observation post in the Al Jamlah zone where the four Filipinos were abducted.

“In light of the evolving security situation, peacekeepers from that position have been relocated,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

“[The UNDOF is] operating in an extremely dangerous and unusual environment,” he added.

However Nesirky said there were no indications that the rebels had harmed the abducted Filipinos.

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

Del Rosario said he had no updates on the negotiations with the rebels.

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.

Rebels in Syria’s Golan Heights have posted a new video online showing the four Filipino U.N. peacekeepers, with the men apparently unharmed, restating that their aim is to protect the peacekeepers.

“The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade’s leadership announces it is responsible for saving four members of the U.N. force from an area of battles pitting [rebel] brigade members against criminals from gangs loyal to [President Bashar] al-Assad,” said an unnamed spokesman in the video.

The rebel spokesman stood as he read his statement, while the four U.N. peacekeepers sat on chairs in front of him. The peacekeepers appeared unharmed.

The goal behind the abduction “was first of all aimed at ensuring the soldiers’ safety,” the rebel spokesman said. “Secondly, so that members of criminal [pro-Assad] gangs do not seek refuge with them.”

This was the second time that the rebels released a video showing the four men.

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