Filipino peacekeepers trapped in collapsed UN building

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 13 2010 03:37 PM | Updated as of Jan 14 2010 04:39 PM


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MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) - At least 25 members of the Philippine peacekeeping contingent in Haiti are feared trapped inside the collapsed United Nations Stabilization Mission building after a magnitude 7.0 quake rocked the Caribbean nation Tuesday (Wedensday in Manila), a Philippine official reported Wednesday.

Philippine military spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner told ANC's Dateline Philippines that Lt. Col. Lope Dagoy, commander of the Philippine peacekeeping forces in Haiti, has reported through his wife that some Filipino soldiers were trapped inside the building that collapsed right after the country was struck by the earthquake.

Elmer Cato, press officer of the Philippine mission to the United Nations, also said earlier Filipino peacekeepers were trapped at the collapsed United Nations Stabilization Mission building.

He said the Philippine peacekeeping force is composed of 157 officers and enlisted personnel from the Armed Forces of the Philippines and 22 personnel from the Philippine National Police (PNP).

In a phone interview with ABS-CBN News, Lt. Col. Limar Galicia, deputy commander of the peacekeeping operations center in Camp O'Donnell in Capas, Tarlac, said he was informed by the New York Permanent Mission via email that at least 23 Filipino peacekeepers may have been trapped inside the headquarters of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haiti, or MINUSTAH).

Galicia said that these Filipinos are mostly doing clerical work and are usually the last to leave the office, which explained why they may have been still inside the building when the quake struck Tuesday afternoon local time in Haiti (Wednesday morning in Manila).

Meanwhile, PNP spokesman Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina said that according to an email they received at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday (Manila time) all their personnel in Haiti are safe and were staying at the UN logistics support base.

Other Filipinos might also be trapped in other buildings, the military said.

Filipino peacekeepers are also assigned at the following buildings in Port-au-Prince:

Italian House - 90 (Service support offices for the UN mission)
Montana Hotel - 29 (Security services)
Christopher Hotel - 23 + 2 military officers (UN mission headquarters)
Logistics Base - 13

Not losing hope

Military officials back home are still hopeful they will soon contact the missing peacekeepers.

Col. Gregory Cayetano, commander of peacekeeping operations, said that the quake struck past office hours, and that might be an advantage.

Cayetano also said that many relatives of the peacekeepers have been calling their office, hoping for news from their loved ones.

He added that as day breaks in Haiti, they are hopeful that they will be able to get more information on the situation of their colleagues on the ground in the disaster-stricken nation.

UN operations 'severely hampered'

In a statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced concern for the people of Haiti, as well as the UN staff there.

“My heart goes out to the people of Haiti after this devastating earthquake,” he said in a statement issued on Tuesday night (Wednesday morning in Manila). “I am receiving initial reports and following developments closely.”

The Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy, said that contacts with the UN on the ground have been severely hampered as communications networks in Haiti have been disabled by the quake.

“For the moment, a large number of personnel remain unaccounted for,” Le Roy said in a statement.

The MINUSTAH was set up in 2004 and currently has more than 9,000 military and police personnel and nearly 2,000 civilian staff, the UN said.

Hundreds of Pinoys in Haiti

Meanwhile, he said that there are more than 400 more Filipinos living or working in Haiti. He said they have yet to determine if there are Filipino casualties in the strong earthquake.

Among the Filipinos in Haiti is the Vatican's Apostolic Nuncio to the country, Bohol native Archbishop Bernardito Auza, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI last May 2008.

Cato said they might be able to provide more details on the casualties on Thursday after meeting with members of all the contributing countries to the UN.

"It's evening right now. I don't think the UN would be able to accomplish much at this point. We'll have more concrete information tomorrow, I guess," he said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), meanwhile, said it has yet to establish the damage wrought by the powerful earthquake to the Filipino community and the Philippine peacekeeping contingent in Haiti due to the cutoff communication and power lines.

“The UN headquarters in New York has also not been able to communicate with the MINUSTAH in Port-au-Prince,” DFA spokesman Eduardo Malaya said in a statement.

Massive casualty

There were fears that the death toll of the devastating earthquake could reach thousands. There were reports that several bodies have been seen on the streets.

Cato said that despite being shaken by the strong earthquake, Filipino peacekeepers housed in front of a building adjacent to the MINUSTAH headquarters "were among the first to rush to the scene."

He said the Filipino peacekeepers were involved in "search and rescue work to the point of even using their bare hands."

He said that before communication lines were cut off, they received initial reports from the Filipino peacekeepers of "several bodies recovered."

Cato added that several victims trapped in collapsed buildings were still alive and are now subjects of recovery efforts. With a report from Gretchen Malalad, ABS-CBN News