MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines has set out conditions to the United Nations for more than 300 Filipino peacekeepers to stay in the Golan Heights, including additional weapons for their protection in the volatile buffer region separating Israel from Syria, the government said Sunday.
A withdrawal by the Philippines would be a heavy blow to the U.N. forces, whose numbers have been reduced drastically in recent months as several nations have pulled out.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario in a meeting Friday in New York that the world body would work "with all stakeholders to provide what is needed consistent with the disengagement agreement," the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
President Benigno Aquino III's administration did not immediately say whether the U.N. pledge would be enough for it to decide to keep 342 Filipino soldiers in the Golan Heights beyond Aug. 11, when the Philippine contingent is to be replaced by fresh troops. Aquino has sought increased security for the troops, saying they face "an undoable mission" if their security in the increasingly violent buffer zone is not bolstered.
Austria pulled its 377 peacekeepers from the 911-member force last month, leaving only Philippine and Indian troops.
The United Nations and the United States have asked the Philippines to keep its troops in place, warning of "maximum volatility" in the Golan Heights if the Filipinos withdraw after a number of other countries pulled their forces, del Rosario has said. Croatia withdrew in March for fear its troops would be targeted, and Japanese forces have also withdrawn.
Last month, del Rosario said he would recommend to Aquino that Filipino peacekeepers be withdrawn from the Golan following two separate abductions of Filipino troops and the wounding of another in fighting between Syrian government and rebel forces. The abducted Filipinos were released unharmed after negotiations.
Del Rosario told Ladsous that the Philippines wanted the U.N. to deploy a peacekeeping force of 1,250 troops and acquire additional protective equipment and weapons for the soldiers by October, according to Sunday's statement. He also said Filipino troops should be allowed to be replaced every six months, shorter than the current deployment.
Ladsous said he understood the Philippines' position and agreed that more robust defense capabilities were needed for peacekeepers, the statement said.
No details were given of what additional weaponry the Philippines was seeking for troops, but a Filipino military official who has visited the peacekeepers in the Golan Heights said the soldiers needed to be provided with armored troop carriers with mounted guns for defense when they come under attack. Armored vans currently in use do not have such gun mountings, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters.
The U.N. force was established in 1974 to monitor the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, and Syria wants the land returned in exchange for peace.
In recent months, Syrian mortars overshooting their target have repeatedly hit the Israeli-controlled Golan, and Israel has responded on several occasions. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in May that the militant group would help ally Syria retake the Golan Heights.