Contingencies for a massive repatriation of Filipino migrant workers affected by the Middle East crisis are still in place following reports that Iran “unintentionally” shot down an Ukrainian passenger jet that crashed after taking off from Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard.
Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, tasked by President Rodrigo Duterte to oversee evacuation efforts for Pinoys affected by the tension in the Middle East, is now in Qatar to kickstart the repatriation process, the Department of National Defense (DND) said Saturday.
Cimatu, the government’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, is also closely monitoring and assessing the situation in Iran, Iraq, Libya, and other neighboring states.
“The situation in the area is still unstable and our contingencies for massive repatriation are still in place,” DND spokesman, Dir. Arsenio Andolong, said in a statement.
Iran President Hassan Rouhani said a military investigation had found “missiles fired due to human error” brought down the Boeing 737 on Wednesday, calling it an “unforgivable mistake.”
The about-turn came after officials in Iran had categorically denied Western claims that the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) airliner had been struck by a missile in a catastrophic error.
The plane, which had been bound for Kiev, slammed into a field shortly after taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport before dawn on Wednesday.
It came only hours after Iran’s armed forces launched a wave of missiles at bases hosting American forces in Iraq in response to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s top generals, in a US drone strike.
According to Andolong, the first batch of evacuees are now at 14 and is temporarily housed at the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq pending their flight back to the Philippines. They are expected to be flown to Manila via Doha, Qatar via commercial flight as the Philippine government is still “coordinating with other countries” regarding the diplomatic clearances for the Armed Forces’ assets.
Andolong also noted that the DND is anticipating requests from more Filipinos based as alert levels in Kuwait and Libya were raised anew.
The Kuwaiti government raised its security level to “maximum” on 9 January, while the area within a 100-km radius from and including Tripoli, Libya was raised to Level 4 which merits mandatory evacuation.
“We advise our kabayans in Iraq and in Tripoli, Libya to contact the nearest Philippine mission to facilitate their mandatory evacuation,” Andolong said.
Naval assets ready
The Philippine Coast Guard’s (PCG) newest and biggest asset, the BRP Gabriel Silang, is currently docked in Malta and is “ready to sail anytime to nearby countries where Filipinos are in danger to ferry them to safer areas.”
It is the PCG’s offshore patrol vessel and was actually on its maiden voyage back to the Philippines from France but was diverted to Malta and will be ordered to sail towards Oman or Dubai to aid in the evacuation efforts.
Originally scheduled to arrive in the country on 10 February after its commissioning last year in France, and once given clearance, the BRP Gabriela Silang and its 35 crew members, was instructed to change its route and bring Filipinos, mostly migrant workers, to safer ports before they are put on a flight back to Manila.
It can accommodate approximately 500 people at a time and is more than capable to perform beyond its contractual specification of 20 knots of speed.
Meanwhile, two of the Philippine Navy’s biggest ships, the BRP Tarlac and BRP Davao del Sur, are also on standby for deployment.
Iran had come under mounting pressure to allow a “credible” investigation after video footage emerged appearing to show the plane being hit by a fast-moving object before a flash appears.
The Ukrainian and Canadian leaders called for accountability after Iran’s admission.
The armed forces were first to acknowledge the error, saying the Boeing 737 had been mistaken for a “hostile plane” at a time when enemy threats were at the highest level.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake,” Rouhani said on Twitter.
“Armed Forces’ internal investigation has concluded that regrettably missiles fired due to human error caused the horrific crash of the Ukrainian plane & death of 176 innocent people.”
In a statement posted on the government’s website, Rouhani said Iran’s armed forces had been on alert for possible attacks by the Americans after the “martyrdom” of Soleimani.
“Iran is very much saddened by this catastrophic mistake and I, on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran, express my deep condolences to the families of victims of this painful catastrophe,” he said.
Invitation to probe
Iran has invited the United States, Ukraine, Canada and others to join the crash investigation.
It is Iran’s worst civil aviation disaster since 1988 when the US military said it shot down an Iran Air plane over the Gulf by mistake, killing all 290 people on board.
Video footage of the UIA 737, which The New York Times said it had verified, emerged and appeared to show the moment the airliner was hit.
A fast-moving object is seen rising at an angle into the sky before a bright flash appears, which dims and then continues moving forward. Several seconds later, an explosion is heard and the sky lights up.
Many airlines from around the world cancelled flights to and from Iran in the wake of the crash, or rerouted flights away from Iranian airspace.
Nations around the world have called for restraint and de-escalation, and fears of a full-blown conflict have subsided after US President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that Iran appeared to be standing down after targeting the US bases in Iraq.