By Joyce Pangco Panares | Jul. 06, 2013 at 12:02am
President Benigno Aquino III on Friday agreed to keep the 340 peacekeepers in the Golan Heights until Aug. 11, but will extend their stay only if they get better weapons and protection in the wake of recent abductions.
The President would be prepared to continue the country’s participation in the UN Disengagement Observer Force in war-torn Syria provided its requests to enhance the safety and security of Filipino peacemakers were met, said Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario.
Aquino said last month the Philippine troops needed anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, and protection against chemical warfare.
Escalating violence against the UN Disengagement Observer Force, which monitors a 1974 truce between Israel and Syria, has seen other countries pull out their troops.
Austria, previously the top contributor, will withdraw its 377 soldiers by the end of this month, leaving a force of 530 from the Philippines and India.
The brief abductions of 25 Filipino peacekeepers by Syrian rebels this year, as well as the wounding of a soldier at a UNDOF outpost, prompted Del Rosario to recommend to Aquino that all the country’s troops be withdrawn.
But Del Rosario said Friday that Aquino had decided the Philippine contingent would remain at least until Aug. 11.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the President wanted to avoid further abductions of Filipino peacekeepers.
“We already had the sad experience of having our peacekeepers abducted by some forces so we are concerned,” he said.
Mr. Aquino earlier said the UN must review its terms of engagement in the Golan Heights as well as give more safety equipment to Filipino peacekeepers to ensure that the country does not withdraw its contingent from the strife-torn country.
He acknowledged the need to retain a peacekeeping delegation in Syria, but stressed that it must not be a “mission impossible” for the Filipino troops deployed there.
“If there will be no changes in the situation of our Filipino peacekeepers, maybe the mission is undoable and it puts our troops in a pitiful state -- right smack in the middle of two opposing forces without the capacity to defend themselves,” he said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday the UN was “seriously concerned” about its shrinking peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights and was seeking to recruit troops from Europe to fill the gap.
Fiji has agreed to send 500 soldiers.
Ban earlier asked the Philippines not to withdraw its troops but send additional personnel after Japan and Austria pulled out of the force because of security risks.
He said the further withdrawal of troops from the ceasefire zone will create a “vacuum.”
A team was sent to Syria to assess the possibility of maintaining the country’s presence there.
The two groups of Filipinos who were abducted were released following calls from the United Nations.
The Philippines has deployed a 843 Filipinos in eight peacekeeping missions abroad. About 340 of them are in the Golan Heights, a disputed territory between Israel and Syria where a ceasefire has been monitored by the United Nations since 1974. With Sara Susanne D. Fabunan and AFP
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