Aquino orders review of sending peacekeepers abroad

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Thursday, March 7, 2013

MANILA (Updated) -- President Benigno Aquino III has ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to reassess the viability of sending Filipino humanitarian forces abroad in the wake of the abduction of 21 government troops by an armed group in Golan Heights, Syria.

In an interview in Davao City, Aquino said that even prior to the hostage-taking in Golan Heights, he already directed the military leadership to conduct a review of the government's policy in sending peacekeepers in the conflict-affected countries.

"We have been reviewing (the deployment of peacekeeping force abroad)...I tasked our AFP, in particular, like to reassess," he said.

"Can we afford this number of people? I am told the number is about a thousand for all of the deployments everywhere when we also have our needs here in the country. So I'm still awaiting the results of that study," the President said.

He said the country's population has doubled since 1986 and yet the military and police forces have remained the same.

Aquino said his government has to strike a balance between assisting in humanitarian mission abroad vis-à-vis the need to uphold the peace and security at the home front.

"All of these deployments (of peacekeepers) have vital function. We are part of the global community," he said, adding that the Philippines could also benefit if there is peace in other countries, like in the oil-producing countries in the Middle East.

The government has deployed government troops in Haiti, East Timor, Cambodia and Golan Heights.

The President expressed optimism that the 21 Filipino peacekeepers will be released within 24 hours, as the United Nations has been negotiating with the Syrian rebels.

"I understand, this has already been taken up by the Security Council and the UN itself who are in contact with the Syrian rebels to ensure the safety of our people; and I understand they are being treated well," he said.

"So, so far, nobody has been saying that they are in danger," he added.

The Philippine Government condemned Thursday the incident, but Foreign Affairs Department spokesman Raul Hernandez said the UN force commander in the area is negotiating with the leader of the rebel group and that the Filipino peacekeepers in Golan Heights were reported to be unharmed.

Clashes between Syrian troops and the rebels, however, flared close to Israeli-controlled territory on Thursday, The Associated Press reported.

Syrian troops battled rebel fighters near the Golan Heights, in the southern Syrian province of Daraa, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group.

He said the fighting was concentrated on the outskirts of the Syrian village of Jamlah, about one kilometer (mile) from Israeli-controlled territory.

In an amateur video posted online, a man identified as a spokesman for the rebels called Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades said his group will hold the peacekeepers until Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces withdraw from Jamlah.

The Yarmouk Brigades said in a statement on its Facebook page on Thursday that Assad's troops are shelling Jamlah, and warned that the army will be responsible if the peacekeepers in rebel custody are harmed.

The UN Security Council has demanded their immediate and unconditional release.

It was not immediately clear if UNDOF will keep operating in Syria even if the incident is resolved peacefully.

A man who answered the phone at UNDOF's office in Damascus said he was not authorized to give statements referring questions to the UN in New York.

Timor Goksel, the former UN official in the region, described the members of the peacekeeping force as "a soft target." He said the group is based in Damascus, but staffs observation posts along the armistice line, and travels between the Syrian capital and the frontier to deliver supplies and rotate monitors.

"They were never challenged by anybody in Syria until now," Goksel said.

The Yarmouk Brigades, one of scores of groups fighting Assad's troops, was formed a year ago and most of its fighters appear to be young Syrians from poor areas in the south, said Observatory director Abdul-Rahman.

In a statement Thursday, the Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said its representatives are in contact with rebels in the Jamlah area "to let the peacekeepers go."

The statement denied that seizing the peacekeepers amounted to kidnapping, saying the peacekeepers were taken in a "preventive security measure."

Rebel groups tend to operate independently, despite attempts in December to form a unified military command, and it's not clear whether the local rebels near the Golan will heed calls from exile-based leaders. Rebel fighters tend to see the opposition figures in exile as out of touch.

The abduction of the peacekeepers came a week after the announcement that another member of UNDOF went missing. It also marked the first time for the UN troops to encounter trouble since they began patrolling an Israeli-Syrian armistice line in the Golan Heights nearly 40 years ago. (SDR/With AP/Sunnex)

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