Philippines to Keep UN Forces in Golan Heights

Philippines to keep its contingent of UN peacekeepers in Golan Heights, after Syrian rebels held 21 hostage for three days last week.

Rachel Hirshfeld ,

Filipino UN peacekeepers
Filipino UN peacekeepers
AFP file

The Philippines said Thursday it would keep its contingent of United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, after Syrian rebels held 21 of them hostage for three days last week.

"The Philippine contingent to the UNDOF (UN Disengagement Observer Force) would remain stationed in the Golan Heights to perform its obligation in the name of peace," foreign department spokesman Raul Hernandez told reporters, according to the AFP news agency.

"The Philippines, as a founding member of the UN, remains fully committed to the UN mandate of promoting peace and security."

The UNDOF has been in the Golan Heights since 1974, monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel.

However senior UN diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday there were fears there that Syria's civil war could spark new withdrawals from the peacekeeping force.

The force of less than 1,000 troops comprises troops from the Philippines, Austria and India. There are more than 300 Filipinos in the force.

Previously the force also included soldiers from Canada, Japan and Croatia.

The UN has recently cut peacekeeper patrols and closed down some observation points at the Golan Heights ceasefire zone amid the fresh turmoil in the area, diplomats said on Wednesday.

The UN has complained to the Syrian government about incursions by President Bashar al-Assad's forces into the Golan zone and about rebels who have built up their presence.

Shots were fired at one observation post after the Filipino peacekeepers were freed last Saturday.

The UN peacekeeping spokesman, Kieran Dwyer, acknowledged the growing concerns on Wednesday and said changes to the force were started several months ago, but did not elaborate further.  

Philippine military spokesman Arnulfo Burgos told AFP that the 21 peacekeepers who were abducted last week would likely go back on patrol soon.

"The 21 peacekeepers have finished their stress debriefing and there are no (adverse) findings," Burgos said.

"They are continuing with their medical exams and by all indications, by next week, they might be on full duty status."