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UN, US ask Filipinos not to leave Golan Heights

Associated Press
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario gestures during a news conference Wednesday June 19, 2013 in Manila, Philippines where he talked about three big issues involving the Philippines that included the presence of the Philippine contingent to the UN peacekeeping forces at the Golan Heights. Del Rosario said the Philippines still is committed to keep the Philippine peacekeepers until August 3, 2013 and subject to "conditionalities" beyond the period. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The United Nations and Washington have separately asked the Philippines not to withdraw its more than 300 Filipino peacekeepers from the Golan Heights, warning of "maximum volatility" in the region after a number of countries decided to pull out their peacekeeping forces amid escalating violence, the Philippines' top diplomat said Wednesday.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appealed to him in recent talks. He said he told them security for the Filipino forces should be bolstered for the Philippines to consider to keep them in the volatile buffer zone between Syria and Israel.

Last month, del Rosario recommended the withdrawal of the Filipinos from the Golan Heights to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III following two separate abductions of Filipino peacekeepers and the wounding of another in fighting between Syrian government and rebel forces.

Austria announced recently that it would remove its 377 peacekeepers from the 911-member U.N. peacekeeping force, which also includes troops from India. That will leave the Philippines as the largest single contributor.

Croatia withdrew in March for fear its troops would be targeted. Japanese forces have also withdrawn, according to del Rosario.

"This, of course, will create a vacuum in the Golan, that separation stretch which keeps Israel away from Syria," del Rosario said in a news conference in Manila. He said Kerry and Ban told him that if the Philippines also withdraws, that would "create maximum volatility for the area."

In talks with Ban and Kerry, "I mentioned that we thought that the exposure was beyond tolerable limits for our people but we're willing to reconsider and make a new assessment if the security and safety of our peacekeepers would be upgraded," he said.

Ban has proposed expanding the peacekeeping force to 1,250, and British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, president of the U.N. Security Council, said Tuesday there is strong support in the council for the idea.

The Filipino troops now in the Golan Heights will stay in the region up to Aug. 3, when they need to be replaced by a fresh batch. But del Rosario said the Philippines may withdraw from the peacekeeping mission if no additional safeguards are put in place to ensure their safety.

The Philippines has deployed an assessment team to the Golan Heights to take "a good look as to under what conditions we may be able to stay and not withdraw," del Rosario said.

The team would submit an assessment later this week before Aquino makes a final decision, he said.

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