BY JOCELYN MONTEMAYOR and VICTOR REYES
MALACAÑANG has raised the alert level in Libya to Alert Level 4, ordering the mandatory evacuation of Filipinos living and working in the country,
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, concurrent presidential spokesman said yesterday.
Panelo said the alert level was raised because of escalating tensions in the Middle East.
“We advise our kababayans in Iraq and in Tripoli, Libya to contact the nearest Philippine mission to facilitate their evacuation. We will provide further updates as soon as we receive and collate relevant data,” Panelo said.
He assured the overseas Filipino workers in Libya that “the Philippine government is committing all its efforts for the protection of the safety and security of our citizens in the Middle East.”
Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu is now in Qatar overseeing the evacuation and repatriation efforts of the Philippine government as administration leaders continue to assess the situation in Iran, Iraq and other neighboring states.
Panelo said the government is also monitoring the situation in Kuwait after the security level was raised to its maximum level last week.
“The situation in the area is still unstable and our contingencies for massive repatriation are still in place,” he said.
Panelo said the first batch of evacuees, numbering 14, had been transported from the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad in Iraq to Doha in Qatar en route to Manila.
Panelo said the number may still increase as the Philippine Embassy continues to call on the Filipinos in the Middle East who wish to go home.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier on Monday said the first batch of returning OFWs from Baghdad, Iraq was scheduled to depart for Doha, Qatar at around 9 p.m. last night (Monday). They are due to arrive in Doha 12:30 a.m. today (Tuesday).
“The OFWs are scheduled to board a Qatar Airways flight to Manila. However, this still has to be finalized as all flights coming into Manila have been cancelled because of the Taal volcano eruption,” Lorenzana said.
DND spokesman Arsenio Andolong said the OFWs were due to depart Doha for the Philippines at around 2 a.m. Tuesday but this was cancelled after the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) was shut down due to the phreatic activities of Taal volcano.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, who is now in Doha, Qatar, will accompany the OFWs on their flight back to the Philippines.
Overseas Workers Welfare Administration Administrator Hans Leo Cacdac was scheduled to leave for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Monday to personally see to the welfare of our OFWs in the Middle East and assist in the repatriation effort.
Lorenza on Monday morning announced that government is no longer sending two battalions of soldiers to the Middle East to help in the repatriation of OFWs in the area.
Lorenzana, chairman of the Committee on the Repatriation of Filipinos in the Middle East, said the government will instead deploy a “small contingent” of military personnel.
Last week, President Duterte ordered the defense and military establishments to deploy two battalions from the Philippine Army and the Philippine Marines to secure the Filipino workers. A battalion is composed of about 500 men.
But Lorenzana said “it may not be wise to send uniformed servicemen to the Middle East due to the sensitivities of the countries there.”
The decision, he said, was the consensus of members of the Committee during its meeting last Thursday.
“Hence, it was agreed that we recommend the sending of a small contingent of servicemen instead of two battalions but they will be in civilian attire and will not be armed should they be needed on the ground,” Lorenzana said.
Besides, he added, “two battalions would be a lot and they would be taking much of the spaces on the ship, leaving very little or nothing for the repatriates.”
“I have apprised the President of these developments during our meeting last Thursday and he approved the concept,” he also said.
Lorenzana said a Del Pilar-class frigate and a Tarlac-class landing dock are now ready to sail to the Middle East. The Philippine Air Force, on the other hand, has two C-130s and one C-295 transport aircraft, which are ready to fly to “wherever they may be directed to pick up returning Filipinos and bring them to safety.”
Andolong said the Navy ships which will be bringing the military assets and personnel will sail out once the Department of Foreign Affairs secures clearances from host countries.
The military contingent is tasked to “help in the physical labor part of the repatriation. That can be a medical platoon, in combination with security troops, but they are going to bear arms when they set foot in the foreign country, that’s the concept.”