MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine president said Wednesday his government would no longer deploy peacekeepers in "impossible" missions like the Golan Heights, where Filipino forces were attacked by Syrian insurgents.
President Benigno Aquino III said hundreds of Filipino peacekeepers were tasked to guard a U.N.-patrolled buffer zone separating Israel and Syria. But when the Syrian civil war spilled over and Islamic militants started attacking the Filipinos and other peacekeepers, their mission became unclear and highly dangerous.
The Philippines decided to withdraw the peacekeepers ahead of schedule, ending a 5-year presence in the increasingly volatile Golan Heights.
Philippine military officials also feuded with the head of the U.N. peacekeeping force over his handling of a standoff between Syrian rebels and outnumbered Filipino peacekeepers, who fought back and finally escaped after reportedly refusing his order to surrender.
"The news that reached me was that you were ordered to lay down your firearms and we would never agree to that," Aquino said in a presidential palace ceremony, where he welcomed more than 340 Golan peacekeepers and pinned medals on some.
"If you were taken hostage, the problem would have become more complicated with our limited ability to send a rescue force," Aquino said.
The Filipino troops were attacked by fighters from the Nusra Front, who captured 45 Fijian peacekeepers on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan. The Fijians were freed after two weeks.
Philippine officials also wondered why the surrounded peacekeepers were not supported by U.N. rapid-reaction forces with armored vehicles, similar to another group of besieged Filipinos who had been rescued.
The Philippines has sought a U.N. investigation into the circumstances surrounding the standoff.
Aquino said his government would base its decision whether to join future peacekeeping missions on the result of that investigation, stressing that "each life is important."
"Our troops cannot be deployed to help in a situation where their mission is impossible or unclear," Aquino said.
"As commander in chief and leader of this country, I don't want to deploy you to handle a 'mission impossible,'" Aquino told the troops accompanied by top military officials.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and the military's top brass later welcomed the peacekeepers at military headquarters, where they received flower leis and praises. Those who clashed with the Syrian rebels received military medals.
The troops were allowed a brief vacation before being trained for their next mission: helping police secure Pope Francis, who will visit the Philippines in January.