Philippines, Thailand prepare to evacuate citizens in Middle East amid U.S.-Iran tensions

Source: Xinhua| 2020-01-09 13:55:00|Editor: huaxia

Protesters gather in front of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq on Dec. 31, 2019. (Xinhua/Khalil Dawood)

Amid the rapidly escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, the Philippines and Thailand are preparing to evacuate citizens in the Middle East.

MANILA/BANGKOK, Jan. 8 (Xinhua) -- The Philippines on Wednesday expressed "deep concern over the events in Iraq" and the impacts they will have on peace and the stability of the Middle East region.

"The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) expressed deep concern over the events in Iraq and its implications on peace and security in the region," Philippine Foreign Assistant Secretary Eduardo Menez said in a statement.

In view of the escalating events in Iraq, Menez said the DFA has raised the alert level in the whole of Iraq. "The Philippine Embassy in Baghdad has been tasked to effect the mandatory evacuation of Filipinos estimated to be around 1,640 in that country," Menez added.

In accordance with the instructions of President Rodrigo Duterte, Menez said Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, the Philippines' special envoy to the Middle East, will go to the Middle East to oversee the repatriation.

In an news conference, Cimatu stressed the need to start the "preemptive evacuation" as soon as possible.

"We should be prepared for any eventualities. We need to get them out of Iraq at once," he said, adding the government plans to use commercial planes to move Filipinos out of Iraq.

Cimatu, a former military general, said he will leave for Baghdad on Thursday to oversee the mass evacuation. Already, he said efforts were underway to bring Filipinos to the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad in preparation for the evacuation.

President Duterte has ordered the deployment of two battalions of soldiers to the Middle East to help repatriate thousands of Filipino migrant workers in that region amid rising tensions between the United States and Iran, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Wednesday.

A battalion is composed of up to 500 soldiers.

Lorenzana said the rules of engagement for the mission were still being worked out, citing the sensitivity of the mission. He stressed that the mission was not combat in nature but to protect the evacuating Filipinos.

"We will be very careful because we don't want to get involved in case a shooting war breaks out," he told reporters.

Lorenzana clarified that the idea was "still in the planning stage."

"We are still preparing the troops while Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin is coordinating with the governments of Iran and Iraq on the documents needed to allow the entry of the troops," Lorenzana said.

He said the Philippines plans to dispatch cargo planes and ships to transport its citizens out of the danger zone.

People attend the funeral ceremony of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 6, 2020. (Photo by Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua)

"We need to know where our planes can land and our ships can dock, the refuelling, the refurbishment and the like. Those things are needed to be arranged," he added.

Philippine authorities said Filipinos in Iraq, Iran, Libya and Lebanon are first to be forcibly evacuated.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello said there are an estimated 1,184 Filipinos in Iran, 2,191 in Iraq, 3,286 in Libya and 33,424 in Lebanon that need to be evacuated to safer grounds.

He said at another news conference that there are an estimated 2.2 million Filipinos in the Middle East, but he said the number of Filipinos "could double because of the presence of undocumented Filipinos" who sneaked into that region illegally.

Bello said all Filipinos living in Iraq, Iran, Libya and Lebanon will be ordered to return to the Philippines after the highest threat alert was raised to 4 in those Middle Eastern countries.

The government said it is also considering tapping the services of cruise ships. The Philippine Coast Guard said its brand new ship, which is now in Malta after leaving France in December, is headed to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to carry out repatriation missions.

Philippine authorities are still checking if there are any Filipino casualties in the Iran attack on a U.S. base in Iraq where about 600 Filipinos are working.

Meanwhile, the Thai government house web page on Wednesday posted authorization messages from Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to the Thai Embassy in Iran to evacuate Thai citizens should the U.S.-Iran tensions aggravate.

Prayut who also serves the defense minister of the country has authorized the Thai Embassy to arrange a chartered flight or to use one of Thailand's military aircraft in the event of an emergency.

Similarly, Labor Minister Chatumongol Sonakul told the media on Wednesday that he had already assigned the Thai labor attaches in the Middle East to provide assistance, including possible evacuation of Thai workers while monitoring the situation in Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

"We have set aside an evacuation fund for such a predicament in accordance with Thai labor law, said Chatumongol.

The labor minister said there are currently 257 Thai workers in Iran and 25 in Iraq working as technicians, chefs, masseuse, welders, and fishermen.

Also on Wednesday, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the media that it had instructed Thai diplomatic officials in Iran and Iraq to ensure the safety of 89 Thai nationals in Iraq and 359 Thais in Iran, most of whom are students or workers.

Conflict between the U.S. and Iraq heightened after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike that killed an Iranian general in Baghdad on Jan. 3.