UN peacekeepers blue helmets.
(photo credit: Ali Hashisho / Reuters)
The Philippines aims to pull out 342 soldiers on peacekeeping duties in the Golan Heights, nearly half the number of its UN peacekeepers worldwide, after the abduction of four Filipinos near the Syrian border, the foreign minister said on Friday.
Albert del Rosario said he had sent a recommendation to President Benigno Aquino to withdraw the peacekeepers from the Israeli-occupied area, explaining that the four peacekeepers were being held by Syrian rebels as human shields against attack by government forces.
The four were taken hostage on Tuesday.
As of press time on Thursday, Syrian rebel forces were still holding the four members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force.
"Our recommendation ... is for the early pullout of our people because we believe the exposure now is beyond tolerable limits," Del Rosario told reporters.
The Philippines has deployed more than 800 soldiers in UN peacekeeping operations in eight hotspots across the globe. Nearly 350 of them are on duty in the ceasefire zone in the Golan Heights.
Two months ago, Syrian rebels held 20 Filipino peacekeepers near the border and used them to demand the pull back of Syrian government forces. They were freed after a few days.
"Abduction of peacekeepers is a gross violation of international law and we give great importance to the safety and security of our peacekeepers."
The UN withdrew peacekeepers from one of its stations along the Golan Heights on the Syrian side of the border, after the four Filipinos were abducted.
The remaining peacekeepers from the station, Position 86, were relocated, according to UN spokesman Martin Nesirky, who spoke with reporters about the matter on Wednesday.
The UN is doing its best to keep the rest of its peacekeepers along the Syrian border in the Golan Heights, he told reporters. Another spokesperson assured The Jerusalem Post that the forces were still there.
“UNDOF continues to do its utmost to ensure the implementation of its mandate while mitigating risk to its personnel,” Nesirky said.
“Everybody fully understands that they are operating in an extremely dangerous and unusual environment. They have a mandate that stretches back to the 1970s, and they have been carrying out that mandate faithfully since that time.”
The peacekeepers “work in extremely difficult circumstances,” he noted.
“Of course, if the security situation is such that they need to be relocated, they will be relocated. And then, when the situation allows, they will return,” he said.
He added that “the Force is constantly reviewing and adjusting its security arrangements to address the dynamic and rapidly evolving situation in its area of operations.”
The withdrawal from Position 86 comes at a time when Israel is concerned about the future of the mission. In the last year, three of the six nations that participate in the mission – Croatia, Japan and Canada – withdrew their forces, leaving only some 1,000 peacekeepers along the border. The UNDOF, has been monitoring a ceasefire between Israel and Syria since 1974.Austria has threatened that it could similarly pull its peacekeepers
if the EU does not renew its arms embargo against Syria. It is worried that the neutrality of its peacekeepers would be compromised if the embargo were lifted and EU countries sent arms to rebel forces.
There is some concern that if Austria’s were to pull its 377 peacekeepers, UNDOF would not have enough personnel on the border to be effective.
Separately UNDOF’s mandate, which gets renewed every six months, will be up for renewal at the end of June. Before that renewal, UN Secretary-General Ban- Ki Moon is scheduled to complete a report on the UNDOF forces in the Golan Heights.