MANILA, Philippines (AP) — More than 240 Filipino peacekeepers arrived in Manila on Friday after pulling out two weeks early from a U.N. mission in the Golan Heights because of escalating fighting in the border region, the Philippine military said Friday.
The 244 Filipino troops were welcomed by military chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang and other generals after arriving on a U.N.-chartered plane. A smaller group of 85 soldiers is to fly home Sunday from the Golan, ending a five-year Philippine peacekeeping role that has been marred by Syrian rebel kidnappings and attacks, military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.
Among the Filipino peacekeepers were dozens who recently battled al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels. The militants surrounded two U.N. camps on the Syrian side of the Golan buffer zone but the Filipinos defied a rebel demand for them to lay down their arms and surrender. The Filipinos fought back and then managed to escape from the camps, ending a dangerous standoff.
Catapang welcomed the beaming peacekeepers "truly like heroes," proudly shaking their hands. President Benigno Aquino III is to meet the peacekeeping contingent after he returns from a U.S. trip next week, Zagala said.
They "exhibited courage, bravery and commitment while in the face of overwhelming threat," he said.
The U.N. force has patrolled a buffer zone between Syria and Israel since 1974, a year after the Arab-Israeli war. For nearly four decades, U.N. monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria, but the spillover from the Syrian war has led to the abductions of peacekeepers in the last two years, making countries contributing troops wary and prompting several governments to withdraw their troops.
Security conditions on the Syrian side of the Golan have rapidly deteriorated in recent days, directly threatening the safety of U.N. peacekeepers.
The United Nations said Monday it has withdrawn its peacekeepers from high-risk Golan positions because of escalating fighting between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters and relocated its forces to the Israeli side of the border.
Zagala said the relocated peacekeepers had filled a U.N. camp on the Israeli side of Golan, prompting U.N. and Philippine military officials to decide to send the Filipino forces home about two weeks earlier than scheduled.
Alarmed by the deteriorating security in the Golan, the Philippine government earlier notified the United Nations it would not send any replacements when the current Filipino force ends its tour.
The U.N. relocation of peacekeepers follows the two-week abduction of 45 Fijian peacekeepers who were freed last week. They had been captured on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan by fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
The militants also threatened two groups of Filipino peacekeepers but they refused to surrender and managed to escape. One group of outnumbered Filipinos engaged the militants in a seven-hour gunbattle.
Zagala said the early repatriation of the Filipinos was not connected with differences between Philippine security officials and the U.N. peacekeeping force commander over the handling of the crisis.