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UN, US warn of 'maximum volatility' in Golan Heights if Philippine peacekeepers withdraw

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MANILA, Philippines - The United Nations and the U.S. have separately asked the Philippines not to withdraw its more than 300 peacekeepers from the Golan Heights, warning of "maximum volatility" in the region after several other countries decided to pull out their peacekeeping forces amid escalating violence, the Philippines' top diplomat said Wednesday.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appealed to him in recent talks. He said he told them security for the forces should be bolstered for the Philippines to consider keeping them in the volatile buffer zone between Syria and Israel.

Last month, del Rosario recommended to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III that the peacekeepers be withdrawn from the Golan Heights following two separate abductions of Filipino peacekeepers and the wounding of another in fighting between Syrian government and rebel forces.

Austria announced recently that it would remove its 377 peacekeepers from the 911-member U.N. peacekeeping force, which also includes troops from India. That will leave the Philippines as the largest single contributor.

Croatia withdrew in March for fear its troops would be targeted. Japanese forces have also withdrawn, according to del Rosario.

"This, of course, will create a vacuum in the Golan, that separation stretch which keeps Israel away from Syria," del Rosario said in a news conference in Manila. He said Kerry and Ban told him that if the Philippines also withdraws, that would "create maximum volatility for the area."

In talks with Ban and Kerry, "I mentioned that we thought that the exposure was beyond tolerable limits for our people but we're willing to reconsider and make a new assessment if the security and safety of our peacekeepers would be upgraded," he said.

Ban has proposed expanding the peacekeeping force to 1,250, and British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, president of the U.N. Security Council, said Tuesday there is strong support in the council for the idea, adding Fiji will likely send troops by the end of July to replace the Austrian peacekeepers. The U.N. force was established in 1974 to monitor the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan.

The 342 Filipino troops now in the Golan Heights will stay in the region up to Aug. 3, when they need to be replaced by a fresh batch. But del Rosario said the Philippines may withdraw from the peacekeeping mission if no additional safeguards are put in place to ensure their safety.

The Philippines has deployed an assessment team to the Golan Heights to take "a good look as to under what conditions we may be able to stay and not withdraw," del Rosario said.

The team will submit an assessment later this week before Aquino makes a final decision, he said.

Aquino said last week 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," Aquino said.

The Philippines is seeking the deployment of peacekeepers from other nations after Austria decided to withdraw, relatively safer operating areas for Filipinos and rules of engagement that will allow the peacekeepers to adequately defend themselves if they come under attack, del Rosario said.

"If there is no appreciable increase in the risk exposures ... we may even consider adding to our contingent," del Rosario said.

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