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MANILA, Philippines -- (UPDATE 3 - 2:30 p.m.) The 21 Filipino peacekeepers assigned to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights are expected to be released anytime soon, President Benigno Aquino III said Thursday.
"There is an expectation that by tomorrow in Syrian time, all of these 21 to be released. They are a total of three officers and 18 enlisted personnel. And so far, nobody has been saying that they are in danger," the President said in an interview aired over state-run Radyo ng Bayan.
"Both sides in the Syrian conflict recognize that the UN peacekeeping force does help to prevent any outbreak of hostilities between especially Israel and Syria. So they would be looked upon as a benign presence and we don’t expect any further untoward incidents to happen," he added.
At the same time, Aquino said the country is reviewing the number of peacekeepers it has deployed in several conflict-torn countries.
"We are striving to achieve a delicate balance. We have an obligation to help enhance world peace, but we also have domestic interests," he said.
"We have tasked the Armed Forces of the Philippines to reassess if we can afford to send this number of people? I am told the number is about a thousand for all of the deployments everywhere when we also have our needs here in the country," the President added.
From the DFA
Earlier Thursday, the Department of Foreign Affairs said the peacekeepers are safe and the UN is currently negotiating for their release.
“All Filipino peacekeepers are reported to be unharmed and that negotiations are underway to secure their safe release,” the DFA said in a news release.
“The Philippine government is calling for the immediate release of 21 Filipino peacekeepers who are part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights,” it added.
The department said the Philippine government is also coordinating closely with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany for the early and safe release of the Filipino peacekeepers.
The seized peacekeepers, who include officers, were among the 300 Filipino troops deployed to the Golan Heights in November 2012, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said.
DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario said the “main concern of the Philippine government at this time is to ensure the safety and well-being of our peacekeepers. We wish to reiterate that UNDOF’s freedom of movement and safety and security must be respected by all parties in the area.”
At the same time, the Philippine government strongly condemned “the apprehension and illegal detention of the Filipino peacekeepers,” saying these are gross violations of international law.”
“The Filipino peacekeepers are operating under the UN flag. Accordingly, these Filipinos are international personnel clothed with immunity and mantle of protection similar to diplomatic agents and personnel. These rights are inviolable and their transgression is punishable under international law,” del Rosario said in a statement released shortly after noon.
The DFA cited Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel which provides that “if United Nations or associated personnel are captured or detained in the course of the performance of their duties and their identification has been established, they shall not be subjected to interrogation and they shall be promptly released and returned to United Nations or other appropriate authorities.
"Pending their release such personnel shall be treated in accordance with universally recognized standards of human rights and the principles and spirit of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.”
The Philippines has been evacuating overseas Filipino workers, mostly household service workers, in Syria since the crisis in the country started.
(With a report Abigail Kwok, InterAksyon.com)