Military to send ships, planes to evacuate Filipinos from Iraq 'ASAP'

MANILA, Philippines – The military will be sending its assets and troops to begin repatriating Filipinos from Iraq "as soon as possible," Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters on Wednesday, January 8.

President Rodrigo Duterte had ordered mandatory evacuation of some 1,600 Filipinos from the Middle Eastern country caught up in escalating tensions between nearby Iran and the United States.

The Philippine Navy is preparing to deploy one of its landing dock ships, the BRP Davao del Sur, able to accommodate up to 700 repatriates at a time. The Navy may also send one of its Del Pilar class offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) to escort them. Navy Flag Officer-in-Command Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad said the vessels would be ready to deploy "within 72 hours."

The Philippine Air Force, meanwhile, will lend 3 of its transport and cargo aircraft: two C-130 planes, the largest in its fleet, and one C-295 plane.

Upon Duterte's orders, the military will also send two personnel battalions to secure and assist the Filipino repatriates, Lorenzana said. The Philippine Army will send a battalion from its elite Special Operations Command, and the Philippine Marine Corps will send another, said military chief Lieutenant General Felimon Santos Jr.

The Philippine troops' mission will only be to protect the Filipino repatriates, and not engaging in combat, Lorenzana emphasized. The Philippines is not party to the conflict between Iran and the US. The Philippines' defense treaty alliance with the US only covers the Asia-Pacific region, he said.

The Philippine Coast Guard's brand new OPV, the BRP Gabriela Silang, is already en route to the Middle East from Malta, Lorenzana said. It had just left the shipyard where it was built in Saint-Nazaire, France, and was supposed to be welcomed in Manila on February 10. It can ferry 500 people.

The Department of Foreign Affairs is working on diplomatic clearances from Middle Eastern countries from where the military can stage its repatriation mission. The Navy and Air Force assets require such clearances to avoid being mistaken for combatants, Lorenzana said.

Possible countries that could serve as temporary sanctuaries for Filipinos coming out of Iraq include Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Santos said.

The government is also looking at chartering cruise ships – with average capacities of up to 3,500 passengers – and tying up with commercial airliners to take Filipinos out of Iraq and other parts of the Middle East if necessary.

On Wednesday, Iran fired "more than a dozen" ballistic missiles on Iraqi bases housing American troops, in retaliation for the US airstrike on an Iraqi airport last Friday, January 3, that killed top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani.

The incidents followed months of rising tensions between Tehran and Washington, sparking fears of another full-on war in the Middle East.

At the New Year's Call of the Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Lorenzana told reporters that the Philippines would not be dragged into the conflict in the Middle East. However, a war there could cut the Philippines' oil supply, which would put the economy in flux.

For now, the government's top concern is to account for the Filipinos in Iraq and Iran, and to convince them to come home. Filipino workers tend to decline calls for repatriation to keep their jobs. In Iran, many Filipinos are married to Iranians and might not want to leave, Lorenzana said.

The government will spare no expense to save Filipinos from the brewing conflict, the defense chief added. The concern would be to convince them of the imminent danger they will face if they refuse to evacuate. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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