MANILA, Jan. 14 (Xinhua) -- Two Philippine Navy ships left Manila on Tuesday to lead the repatriation of thousands of Filipino workers in the Middle East, home to three million Filipino workers amid simmering U.S.-Iran tensions.
"This is a sacred mission and it is really to safeguard the lives of Filipino people," Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said in a speech during the send-off ceremony.
Duterte said, "The national interests of the Philippines in the Middle East are the lives of more than three million Filipinos."
"That is not a joke. It runs into millions, men, women and their families, and their children," he added.
"I tasked you this duty with a prayer and with a hope that you will carry out your mission successfully and that everybody will be safe," Duterte added.
Duterte did not say how many troops are aboard the ships and where the ships are headed.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said "a small contingent of (unarmed) servicemen" will be sent instead of two battalions which he announced earlier.
Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad said the ships are manned by 130 crew members each, including 100 navy personnel, and medical and repair teams.
Empedrad said the ships' travel time will depend on the speed and current. "If they go with the current, our ships will arrive earlier," he said.
He added that the Philippines is still awaiting the diplomatic clearance from the host country, which he did not name.
"We're still coordinating. Our voyage will take about two weeks before we reach (the host country). We have many friendly nations that will help us," Empedrad told defense reporters.
The Philippines wants all Filipinos out of Iraq. The Department of Foreign Affairs earlier said that Iraq is home to 450 undocumented and 1,190 documented Filipinos.