MANILA - The Philippines may “move physically” if Filipinos in the Middle East get hurt in the crossfire in case of a full-blown conflict between the United States and Iran, President Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday, as he warned that having his countrymen in harm’s way might force him to “rethink” the government’s plan of action on the escalating tensions.
Duterte downplayed his spokesman Salvador Panelo’s earlier remark that the Philippines would side with the United States if its people are intentionally hurt in the Middle East, saying “it’s just a projection.”
“Kung may masaktan (if someone gets hurt), then we just have to move physically, not only verbal. What it will consist of as now I cannot tell you,” he told reporters in Malacañang.
“Kasi kung sabi mo may masaktan o may mga casualty (if someone gets hurt) then I would not like it. Then I would have to rethink my position,” he added.
Panelo earlier in the day said Duterte “will not sit down idly” if Filipinos are harmed, and is simply issuing a “friendly caution” to Iran over the safety of Filipinos in the Middle East.
“The President was very specific in saying last night that if the Filipinos are harmed, he will side with the Americans,” Panelo said.
“He (Duterte) is expressing his concern for the safety of his countrymen… Kumbaga sinasabi niya ‘uy, hindi kami kasali diyan ah’,” he added.
(It’s like he’s saying 'hey, we're not part of this.')
Duterte, who earlier expressed fears over the fate of Filipinos in the Middle East, sent two of his officials to the region on Tuesday to prepare for the possible evacuation of Filipinos there.
“I hope that they would do everything to assure the safety, that no Filipinos are hurt,” the President said.
Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, a former military chief who in 2004 secured the release of a Filipino hostage in Iraq, was tasked to fly immediately to the Middle East where he previously served as envoy to lay the “groundwork” for the possible evacuation of Filipinos.
The President’s adviser on overseas Filipino workers Abdullah Mamao was meanwhile ordered to fly to Iran and Iraq to deliver Duterte’s appeal that "no Filipinos be harmed in the course of the ongoing conflicts," Panelo said.
Around 1,600 Filipinos in Iran and 6,000 in Iraq are at risk should tensions between Tehran and Washington escalate further.
This followed the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, the popular head of the Revolutionary Guards' foreign operations arm, in a US drone strike outside Baghdad airport on Friday.
Iran has vowed to retaliate to the US, and its parliament has tagged all US forces "terrorists" in the wake of the slay.