Duterte sends cabinet official to Middle East to lay evacuation 'groundwork'

Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 07 2020 08:47 AM | Updated as of Jan 07 2020 01:39 PM

MANILA (UPDATE) -- President Rodrigo Duterte will send a cabinet official to the Middle East to coordinate with countries hosting Filipino workers and "lay the groundwork for evacuation" after the killing of an Iranian general in a US drone strike stoked fresh tensions, Malacañang said Tuesday.

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu was tasked to fly immediately to the Middle East, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said. Cimatu is a former military chief and special envoy to the Middle East who in 2004 secured the release of a Filipino hostage in Iraq.

The President’s adviser on overseas Filipino workers, Abdullah Mamao, was also ordered to fly to Iran and Iraq on Tuesday to deliver Duterte’s appeal that "no Filipinos be harmed in the course of the ongoing conflicts," Panelo said.

A special working committee composed of the secretaries of defense, foreign affairs, transportation, interior and the local government, as well as the national security adviser was tasked to draw up a repatriation plan, he said.

Duterte said in a speech in Malacañang on Monday: "I am afraid for the so many lives of our countrymen in jeopardy."

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The Department of Labor and Employment created a 24/7 crisis management committee, its chief Silvestre Bello said.

There are some 1,600 and 6,000 Filipinos in Iran and Iraq, respectively, and at least 4 million migrant workers in the Middle East, he added.

Most workers in Iran and Iraq are undocumented as the Philippines does not have any bilateral agreement with the two nations, according to Bello.

"Foremost in the mind of the President is the safety of Filipinos in the Middle East and he assures the Filipino community and the nation that the Philippine Government is doing everything it can in making sure that our fellow citizens abroad are out of harm's way," Panelo said.

The death of military commander Qassem Soleimani has sparked fears of revenge by Iran targeting US positions in the Middle East. US President Donald Trump said there would be "major retaliation" if Iran attacks.

"We do not know what will be the end result of this crisis. It could lead to a war, it could be a wide scale strife. Whatever it is, we Filipinos are really in great peril," Duterte said Monday.