The Philippine military said Friday the bulk of Filipino peacekeepers of more than 240 soldiers have pulled out two weeks early from the UN mission in the Golan Heights due to escalating fighting in the region.
The 244 Filipino soldiers and support staff will arrive in Manila on a UN-chartered plane on Friday, Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.
A smaller batch of 85 soldiers will arrive Sunday from the Golan, ending a five-year Philippine peacekeeping role that has been marred by Syrian rebel kidnappings and attacks.
Zagala said the long-planned withdrawal is not connected with differences between Filipino security officials and the UN peacekeeping force commander over the recent handling of a now-resolved hostage crisis involving Filipino and Fijian troops in Golan.
"Troops are being repatriated because of the deteriorating security situation," Zagala said, adding the United Nations had approved the withdrawal. "Protection of our soldiers is in the national interest."
Among the homebound Filipino peacekeepers arriving Friday are dozens of soldiers who recently battled al-Qaida-linked 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 Filipinos fought back then managed to escape from the encampments, ending a dangerous standoff. The gunmen also disarmed and abducted 45 Fijian peacekeepers who were later freed unharmed.
"They will receive a hero's welcome," Zagala said, adding a motorcade was planned if the stormy weather in Manila eases. They "exhibited courage, bravery and commitment while in the face of overwhelming threat."
The 1,200-strong UN force has patrolled a buffer zone between Syria and Israel since 1974, a year after the Yom Kippur War. For nearly four decades, UN monitors helped enforce a stable truce between Israel and Syria, but the spillover from the Syrian war has led to the abductions of peacekeepers in the last two years, making countries contributing troops wary and prompting several governments to withdraw their troops.
Security conditions on the Syrian side of the Golan, however, have rapidly deteriorated in recent days, directly threatening the safety of UN peacekeepers.
The United Nations said Monday it had withdrawn its peacekeepers from high-risk Golan positions because of escalating fighting between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters and relocated its forces to the Israeli side of the border.
Zagala said the relocated peacekeepers had filed up a UN encampment on the Israeli side of Golan, prompting UN and Philippine military officials to decide to send the Filipino forces home about two weeks earlier than scheduled.
Even before last month's stand-off, the Philippine government had decided not to renew its peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights due to safety concerns.
"Because of this repositioning of all peacekeepers to the Israeli side of Golan Heights and its attendant logistical constraints on UNDOF, it was deemed practical that PH contingent be repatriated earlier than expected," Zagala said.
More than 100 Filipino UN peacekeepers have also been recalled from Liberia amid the deadly Ebola outbreak there.
Despite the Golan pullout, the Philippines will continue joining UN peacekeeping missions abroad and is set to replace its 150-strong force in Haiti this month, Zagala said.
"We are still committed to the UN," he added.
The Philippines also maintains three peacekeeping observers and three staffers in the Ivory Coast and four in the Kashmir region between Indian and Pakistani forces.