Manila seeks Golan Heights peacekeeper pullout after abductions

MANILA Fri May 10, 2013 12:58am EDT

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario speaks during a media briefing at the foreign affairs headquarters in this picture provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila January 22, 2013. REUTERS/Department of Foreign Affairs

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario speaks during a media briefing at the foreign affairs headquarters in this picture provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila January 22, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Department of Foreign Affairs

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MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines aims to pull out 342 soldiers on peacekeeping duties in the Golan Heights, nearly half the number of its U.N. peacekeepers worldwide, after the abduction of four Filipinos near the Syrian border, the foreign minister said on Friday.

Albert del Rosario said he had sent a recommendation to President Benigno Aquino to withdraw the peacekeepers from the Israeli-occupied area, explaining that the four peacekeepers were being held by Syrian rebels as human shields against attack by government forces.

The four were taken hostage on Tuesday.

"Our recommendation ... is for the early pullout of our people because we believe the exposure now is beyond tolerable limits," Del Rosario told reporters.

"Abduction of peacekeepers is a gross violation of international law and we give great importance to the safety and security of our peacekeepers."

The Philippines has deployed more than 800 soldiers in U.N. peacekeeping operations in eight hotspots across the globe. Nearly 350 of them are on duty in the ceasefire zone in the Golan Heights.

Two months ago, Syrian rebels held 20 Filipino peacekeepers near the border and used them to demand the pull back of Syrian government forces. They were freed after a few days.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) pulled back from an observation post in al Jamiah zone in the Golan Heights, where the Filipino soldiers were taken captive.

The UNDOF, which has been monitoring a ceasefire between Israel and Syria since 1974, has about 1,000 peacekeepers and civilian staff from Austria, Croatia, India, Moldova, Morocco and the Philippines.

(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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