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Philippines may pull peacekeepers from Golan

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The Philippines said Friday it may quickly withdraw from a United Nations peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights because of security concerns, following the abduction of four Filipino troops.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said he had made a recommendation to President Benigno Aquino to pull out the more than 300 troops from the area.

"As soon as he says go, we will undertake to do that as soon as possible," del Rosario told reporters.

Syrian rebels seized the four Filipino peacekeepers at an observation post in the Golan Heights on Tuesday, two months after 21 Filipino soldiers were abducted by the same group and held for four days.

"The people that abducted our peacekeepers were actually under siege and they are using our people to get themselves out of the situation they find themselves in. That thing is not for us," del Rosario said.

"We don't want to expose our people any further, any more than we need to."

Del Rosario said he understood it normally required a three-month notice period to withdraw troops from a United Nations peacekeeping mission.

"But under the circumstances, where people are in jeopardy -- obviously our people are in jeopardy -- we may try to get... the UN to release them earlier if that is possible," he said.

Presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said Aquino was considering the recommendation and del Rosario's fears about the peacekeepers' safety were valid, although no decision on a withdrawal had been made.

"This is the second time this has happened so there are legitimate concerns about the safety of our peacekeepers," Carandang said in a text message to AFP when asked to comment on del Rosario's recommendation.

The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has been monitoring a ceasefire in the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria since 1974.

The ceasefire zone has become increasingly dangerous because of the two-year-old Syrian war, which has cost more than 70,000 lives.

Syrian government forces and rebels are fighting inside the area. Shells from the Syrian side have been hitting Israeli-held territory and the Israeli military have been firing back.

The UNDOF has about 1,000 peacekeepers and civilian staff from Austria, India, Morocco, Moldova and the Philippines.

Del Rosario said there were about 340 Filipino troops in the peacekeeping force.

On Wednesday, the UN pulled all peacekeepers out of the observation post in the Al Jamlah zone where the four Filipinos were abducted.

"(The UNDOF is) operating in an extremely dangerous and unusual environment," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

But he said he had not heard about any country seeking to withdraw from the force. Security measures were already stepped up after the March abductions and many patrols curtailed.

Philippine military spokesman Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan said in Manila on Friday that UN peacekeepers had been in "continuous talks" with the hostage takers, but gave no details on the negotiations.

The Syrian rebel group, which calls itself the "Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade", has said it is holding the peacekeepers "for their own safety".

The rebels released a new video online showing the four peacekeppers in which they appeared unharmed.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130510/philippines-may-pull-peacekeepers-golan