Hopes dim for return of Philippine troops to Golan

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he's been told security threats on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights are not expected to ease soon, dimming hopes that U.N. peacekeepers can be deployed back to the region in the near future.

A group of 244 Philippine peacekeepers flew back to Manila on Friday after being recalled, while 84 more were due home Sunday, ending a five-year presence in the increasingly volatile Golan.

There have been no signs suggesting the Philippines will resume its mission in the Golan. Filipino forces continue to help a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti.

Aquino said his government was informed in a letter from the U.N. assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, Edmond Mulet, that "there is no expectation" that U.N. peacekeepers could be deployed back to the Syrian side of the Golan "in the short or midterm."

Aquino's comments, made Friday during a just concluded trip to Germany, were released to the media on Sunday.

The U.N. peacekeeping force, known as UNDOF, has patrolled a buffer zone between Syria and Israel since 1974, a year after the Arab-Israeli war. For nearly four decades, U.N. monitors helped enforce a stable truce between the two countries.

The Syrian war, however, has spilled over to the Golan buffer zone and led to the abduction of peacekeepers by al-Qaida-linked anti-Syrian government militants and other attacks that prompted several countries to withdraw their soldiers.

As the peacekeeping mission frayed, the U.N. Security Council on Friday reaffirmed its unconditional support for maintaining the peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights. It called the mission vital "to peace and security in the Middle East."

When he returns from his European and U.S. trip next week, Aquino will pay a tribute and bestow awards to the Filipino peacekeepers, military officials said Sunday.

Many of the Filipino peacekeepers recently battled Syrian rebels. The militants surrounded two U.N. encampments on the Syrian side of the Golan buffer zone, but the Filipinos defied a rebel demand for them to lay down their arms and surrender.

The outnumbered Filipinos fought back and then managed to escape from the camps, ending a dangerous standoff. The militants succeeded in abducting 45 Fijian peacekeepers, but later freed them.

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