• Only Pinoy, Indian troops left in Golan

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    United Nations peacekeepers from the Philippines cross the Israeli army crossing of Quneitra between Syria to the Israeli annexed Golan Heights on Wednesday. Austrian troops in Golan began withdrawing, days after Vienna decided to quit the mission over security concerns. AFP PHOTO

    Only peacekeepers from the Philippines and India will be left in the Golan Heights as Austria began pulling out its troops from the demilitarized zone.

    The Austrian withdrawal comes as the Philippine government weighs the wisdom of retaining its own peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights.

    An Agence France-Presse correspondent on Wednesday reported that a group of around 70 Austrian soldiers entered the Israeli side of the strategic plateau through the Quneitra crossing, the only direct passage between Israel and Syria.

    The troops, the first wave of the 378-strong Austrian contingent which is due to be pulled out in stages, arrived in jeeps accompanied by armoured vehicles before crossing through Syrian and Israeli controls.

    When completed, the Austrian pullout will leave the UN force with just 534 troops—341 from the Philippines and 193 from India, UN officials say.

    In Malacañang on Wednesday, Strategic Communications Secretary Ramon Ricky Ca­randang said the government continues to review the country’s United Nations (UN) missions around the world, particularly the one in the Golan Heights.

    “There was no decision yet,” Carandang said. “We need to get some clarifications from the UN first before we could come up with a decision,” Carandang said.

    The review was prompted by the wounding of a Filipino peacekeeper by mortar fire as Syrian government and rebel fighters battled for a border crossing.

    There were also two abductions of Filipino troops by rebel Syrian forces in the past four months.

    Carandang said no deadline was set for the government to reach a decision.

    President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Tuesday summoned Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas 2nd, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Foriegn Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa and Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, and the heads of the defense and police establishments to Malacañang to discuss the peacekeeping issue.

    The President said the review will involve determining the primary mission, the effectivity of carrying out the mission and knowing whether the risks are reasonable enough for the Filipino peacekeepers to stay on.

    The Philippines began to join UN peacekeeping missions in the 1960s.

    There are changing conditions on the ground, particularly on how the UN and other interested states deal with the situation, the President said.

    Austria, which has been a cornerstone of UNDOF, the UN force monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974, announced on Thursday that it would withdraw its peacekeepers because of deteriorating security on the Golan Heights.

    Defense Minister Gerald Klug said the pullout of Austria’s soldiers on the Golan would take between two and four weeks.

    The UN is trying to persuade Austria to slow down its withdrawal from the force which, since March, has numbered just over 900 troops.

    A year ago UNDOF had more than 1,100 troops. But Japan and Croatia have pulled out their men in recent months as battles between Syrian troops and the rebels spilled into the ceasefire zone.

    Earlier this year, Israel has expressed concern that the UN force could pull out altogether after rebels snatched 21 peacekeepers from the demilitarized zone.

    Israel fears that the departure of UNDOF troops could leave a vacuum in the ceasefire zone, leaving it open to infiltration by hardline militant groups such as al-Qaeda.

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