The Philippines has withdrawn the bulk of its peacekeepers early from the United Nations mission in the Golan Heights due to escalating fighting in the border region, the country's military said Friday.
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Some 240 Filipino troops will arrive in Manila on a UN-chartered plane on Friday and a second, smaller batch on Sunday, 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 homebound Filipino peacekeepers arriving Friday are dozens of soldiers who recently battled al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels. The militants surrounded two UN encampments 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 before managing to escape from the encampments, ending a dangerous standoff.
"They will receive a hero's welcome," Zagala said, adding a motorcade was planned if the stormy weather in Manila eases. They "exhibited courage, bravery and commitment while in the face of overwhelming threat."
The 1,200-strong UN force has patrolled a buffer zone between Syria and Israel since 1974, a year after the Yom Kippur war. For nearly four decades, UN 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The UN said this week that it had withdrawn its peacekeepers from high-risk Golan positions because of escalating fighting between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters and relocated its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.
Alarmed by the deteriorating security in the Golan, the Philippine government earlier notified the UN that it would no longer send fresh forces when the current Filipino force ends its tour in the volatile region in October.