Philippines seeks increased protection for UN peacekeepers in Golan Heights
Philippines seeks increased protection for its troops in border zone as Syrian conflict worsens
The future of the United Nations peacekeeping force in the disputed Golan Heights was thrown into further doubt as the Philippines, which provides one-third of the force's soldiers, warned that it might withdraw them.
Manila is demanding they get heavy weapons and protection to survive attack by chemical weapons, planes and tanks deployed in Syria's civil war.
The warning, made by President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines, came as the UN was still scrambling for replacements to fill a void in the Golan peacekeeping force left by Austria, which ordered its contingent to withdraw a few weeks ago because of the instability caused by the war in Syria.
The Golan Heights area that straddles Syria and Israel had been relatively quiet for four decades. But in recent months, it has been increasingly entangled in the Syrian war, as clashes between insurgents and loyalists have spilled over. Israel, which remains technically at war with Syria, has responded by strengthening its military presence in the area.
Aquino said in Manila that his government was trying to identify "all the potential threats" to the Golan force, known as the UN Disengagement Observer Force. He said the Philippines was pressing for anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons. He also raised the possibility of a chemical weapons attack, as the United States and its allies have now concluded that the Syrian government used sarin, a nerve agent, in the conflict.
The Philippines has said its forces would remain at least until early August, but Aquino was quoted by the Philippines news media as saying: "If our requests are not granted, I will not risk keeping our troops there without the resources required to carry out their mission."
Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the UN Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support, declined to comment on the Philippine president's remarks. But she said in an e-mailed statement that the Golan force was in regular contact with the Philippine authorities and that it was "constantly reviewing its operational posture to ensure the safety and security of its personnel".
Meanwhile, sectarian tensions raised by the Syrian conflict appeared to intensify, focusing mainly on Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant organisation that is helping Assad's forces fight the insurgents.
Lebanon's president, Michel Suleiman, beseeched Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria, expressing concern in a Lebanese newspaper interview that its continued presence there would lead to further tension in Lebanon.