By Basilio Sepe and Luis Liwanag
Philippine officials said they would be ready to bring thousands of Filipinos home from the Middle East if rising hostilities in the region put their lives in danger.
Thai and Indonesian officials, meanwhile, warned their citizens in Iran and Iraq to be on the alert as tensions soar after the United States killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in the Iraqi capital last week.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met with his top military advisers including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Sunday, two days after Soleimani died in a drone strike near Baghdad’s international airport.
“I’m nervous. Iran seems to be hell-bent on a retaliation, which I think will come. It’s a matter of time,” Duterte said Monday as he signed the nation’s 4.1 trillion peso (U.S. $80 billion) budget. “There is much hurt and even the loss of pride in the Arabic world and retaliation or the cry for blood is there.
Maj. Gen. Soleimani, 62, commanded the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, both of which Washington had branded as foreign terrorist organizations, accusing them of being behind state-sponsored terrorism across the Middle East.
“We do not know what would be the end result of this crisis. It could lead to a protracted war, it could be a wide-scale strife,” he said. “But whatever it is, we Filipinos are really in great peril.”
Government officials estimate 1,600 Filipinos are in Iran and 6,000 are in Iraq respectively.
“The sole agenda was how to insure the safety of our countrymen in the Middle East, especially those in Iraq and Iran as the tension between the U.S. and Iran rises,” Lorenzana said Monday in a statement describing Sunday’s meeting.
He said Duterte had ordered the armed forces to “prepare its air and naval assets to evacuate and bring home” Filipinos who may be trapped in the Middle East if the hostilities kept rising.
After Friday’s drone strike, U.S. President Donald Trump posted a series of tweets threatening to strike back quickly if Iran retaliated. He listed 52 potential targets, including important cultural sites.
Iranian officials said such threats could be considered war crimes, and vowed that Tehran’s response would be against military sites while the Iraqi parliament voted to expel U.S. troops from the country.
Discussions about evacuations
On Monday, Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo said only those Filipinos who wanted to be repatriated would be flown home, while forced evacuations could be necessary in the near future.
“If their lives are in danger, of course, the government would do everything it can to save them from harm,” Panelo told reporters in Manila. “The president had instructed everyone to get ready and if the situation escalates, we should pull out our compatriots.”
In addition, economic managers are studying the possible implications of hostilities affecting fuel prices locally because the Philippines imports much of its oil from the Middle East, officials said.
Meanwhile, security services have been coordinating with other countries over possible sympathy attacks by groups loyal to Iran.
The national police are “profiling possible threats, possible groups who might sympathize,” national police chief Lt. Gen. Archie Gamboa said, adding there had been no direct threat so far.
In Jakarta, the Indonesian foreign ministry, while not commenting on the drone strike, called for efforts to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East.
“We call on all parties to refrain from any action that can worsen the situation,” the ministry said in a statement adding, “We call on Indonesian citizens to remain vigilant.”
In Bangkok, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha announced that he had ordered security officers to reinforce embassies where necessary.
“Thai officials will consider the safety of the Thai people as most important,” Prayuth said.
Thailand’s embassy in Amman, Jordan, issued a warning letter telling Thais to avoid large gatherings and refrain from traveling to neighboring Iraq.
“Thailand, together with the international community, calls on all parties concerned to exercise their utmost patience, avoid provocation and refrain from using force, to reduce tensions and to maintain peace and stability in the region,” Thai Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Busadee Santipitaks told BenarNews.