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Philippines recalls peacekeepers from Liberia over Ebola threat

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines on Saturday ordered 115 troops to return home from peace-keeping operations in Liberia, spurred by a worsening Ebola epidemic in West Africa that has killed almost 1,500 people.

The Philippines has about 800 to 1,000 soldiers and police officers serving under the United Nations flag in conflict and disaster-stricken areas, including Haiti, Sudan, East Timor, Cote d'Ivoire and the Korean peninsula.

"The president is getting worried over the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and has ordered all 115 Filipino troops to return home as soon as possible," a senior defense official told Reuters.

The Philippine contingent would cut short its tour of duty, added the official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Philippines has been sending soldiers to Liberia since 2003. A Philippine seaman is being monitored in Togo for signs of the disease but authorities say the country is still Ebola-free, despite dozens of workers returning from Liberia. [ID:nL5N0QS1OZ]

Another 331 Philippine troops deployed in the Golan Heights will return home in October after completing a tour of duty, defense ministry spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said.

"Amidst the volatile security environment in the Middle East and West African region, the Philippines prioritizes the safety and security of its troops, but remains committed to the peace keeping missions of the Union Nations," he said in a statement.

The Philippines has been sending a battalion-size contingent to the Golan Heights since 2009. In March 2013, Syrian rebels briefly held 21 Philippine peacekeepers and kidnapped four more two months later. All Philippine peacekeepers have been freed.

Peacekeepers have been caught in the middle of fighting between Syrian troops and rebels in the area of separation, which had been largely quiet for nearly 40 years.

Israel captured the Golan heights from Syria in the 1967 "Six-Day" war, and the countries technically remain at war. Syrian troops are not allowed in an area of separation under a 1973 ceasefire formalized in 1974.

The United Nations Disengagement Observation Force (UNDOF), which has been monitoring the ceasefire, has about 1,000 peacekeepers and civilian staff from India, Nepal, Ireland, Fiji, Moldova, Morocco and the Philippines.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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