MANILA, Philippines – Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said Tuesday that he wants better protection and a robust mandate for the country's U.N. contingent in the Golan Heights if he decides to keep them there at the risk of violence coming from Syria.
Aquino said he was weighing a proposal made by his foreign secretary to withdraw all 342 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers, which will be discussed at a security meeting later Tuesday.
The recommendation follows two separate abductions and shelling by Syrian rebels inside the U.N.-patrolled demarcation line separating Syria from the Israeli-occupied plateau. Two peacekeepers from the Philippines and India were wounded last week during fighting between Syrian government and rebel forces.
Austria announced last week that it would remove its 377 peacekeepers from the 911-member U.N. force, which also includes troops from India. That leaves the Philippines as the largest single contributor.
Croatia withdrew in March for fears its troops would be targeted.
"There are a lot of countries pulling out. There is heightened fear that if the whole U.N. detachment or the U.N. forces there pull out, there will be no buffer between Israel and Syria," Aquino said, adding that if that happens, "the two forces will draw closer ... and there will be a flare-up of hostilities again."
Aquino said that the changes he was looking for included additional equipment and enhanced security for the peacekeepers, and different rules of engagement.
"If there is no change in the conditions, it might be an undoable mission and our poor troops will be in the middle of two potentially clashing forces and they cannot defend themselves," he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last week offered to send Russian troops to the Golan Heights to replace the Austrians, but this was quickly shot down by Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the U.N. peacekeeping department. She said that the disengagement agreement does not allow the participation of troops from a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.