Philippines UN peacekeepers to guard pope's visit

Philippines UN peacekeepers to guard pope's visit

MANILA - The Philippines has assigned a thousand-strong force of its United Nations peacekeepers to help guard Pope Francis when he visits Asia's main Catholic outpost next January, the military said Sunday.

The papal security force will include more than 300 soldiers who were withdrawn from the UN-administered Golan Heights buffer zone after the unit fought off an attack by Syrian rebels last month.

"We believe that their exposure and experience in peacekeeping operations in Syria will be beneficial towards the successful security of Pope Francis's papal visit to the Philippines," said a statement quoting military chief General Gregorio Catapang.

Two battalions of Filipino UN peacekeepers, including those withdrawn from the Golan Heights as well as those who had been training to replace them, will join a police-led security detail for the pope, he added.

A Filipino battalion comprises about 500 soldiers.

The Philippines earlier announced it would not replace its Golan Heights troops due to the worsening security there.

The local Catholic church leadership said Pope Francis will be in the Philippines from January 15-19 and will visit the survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which left about 7,300 people dead across the central Philippines in November last year.

Philippine politicians have said Filipino Islamic militants, some of who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State jihadists fighting in Iraq and Syria, could pose a threat during the papal visit.

The Philippine government has said there are no known links between the two groups, and that the Filipino militants are merely associating themselves with the jihadists to elevate their profile and for financial gain.

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