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Top Philippine diplomat recommends peacekeepers stay in Golan Heights after UN bolsters safety

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MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines' top diplomat said Wednesday that he had reversed an earlier recommendation and now backs an international appeal for more than 300 Filipino peacekeepers to stay in the increasingly dangerous Golan Heights for six months after the United Nations promised to bolster their security.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told a news conference that U.N. officials assured him in a recent meeting in New York that they would fulfil three conditions laid down by the Philippine government, including providing the peacekeepers, who are mostly Filipino army troops, with more self-defence weapons and armour.

The Philippines has also asked the U.N. to increase the number of peacekeepers back to 1,250 as earlier agreed after a number of countries withdrew their contingents amid escalating hostilities. It also wants each batch of Filipino peacekeepers to be deployed for only six months instead of one year to allow for better assessment of security risks, del Rosario said.

Austria announced recently that it would remove its 377 peacekeepers from the 911-member U.N. peacekeeping force, which also includes troops from India who deal mostly with logistics. That left the Philippines with its 340 soldiers as the largest single contributor.

Croatia withdrew in March for fear its troops would be targeted. Japanese forces have also withdrawn.

"We said that we don't want a situation where we're the only ones exposed," del Rosario said.

He said the U.N. would likely get additional troops from Fiji and Ireland and expand the current contingent back to a force of 1,250 by October.

A recent U.N. Security Council resolution sought an additional $8 million to improve security of and acquire more weapons for the peacekeepers, but wanted them to have a one-year deployment. The one-year deployment, however, is to be enforced starting in 2015, so U.N. officials could still allow Filipinos to be replaced every six months before then, del Rosario said.

Del Rosario asked President Benigno Aquino III in May to withdraw the Filipino peacekeepers from Golan due to escalating hostilities between Syrian rebels and government troops in the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone that separates Syria from the Israeli-occupied plateau.

His recommendation followed two separate abductions of Filipino peacekeepers and the wounding of another in fighting in recent months between Syrian government and rebel forces.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other governments then appealed to the Philippines to reconsider the planned withdrawal, warning of "maximum volatility" in Golan after a number of countries decided to withdraw their peacekeeping forces.

"We received many calls from the (U.N.) secretary-general and from various other countries that our leaving would probably create a situation where there will be maximum volatility," Del Rosario said.

After U.N. officials agreed to the Philippine conditions, del Rosario said he asked Aquino to allow the Filipinos to stay in the Golan for at least six months beyond Aug. 11, when they have to be replaced by a fresh batch. He said Aquino would likely approve the plan.

Aquino has said the changes he was looking for included additional equipment and enhanced security for the peacekeepers, and better 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," Aquino said.

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