Government starts repatriation in Syria

MANILA (Updated) -- The government is already providing the necessary transportation to Filipinos in Syria who wish to be repatriated, President Benigno Aquino III said on Tuesday.

"There are contingency plans that are actually being implemented," Aquino told reporters in a press briefing following the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac) meeting Tuesday.

He made the announcement after the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) raised the crisis alert level in Syria to three, prompting the agency to ask Filipinos to voluntarily leave the Middle Eastern nation.

The DFA raised the alert level after 34 civilians were killed during hostilities between Syrian government forces and reformist demonstrators.

"All Filipinos working and residing in Syria are enjoined to leave Syria and the Philippine government will provide for the repatriation cost," said Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario in a statement.

"I have directed our Philippine Embassy in Damascus to intensify its efforts to reach out to Filipinos and convince them that now is the time to consider leaving Syria," he added.

President Aquino said a quick response team has been deployed to Syria to address the concerns of Filipinos there estimated at about 17,000.

"Our problem in Syria, in particular and that's why we're really looking at it very intensely is there are something like 17,000 of our compatriots there and 95 percent of them are domestic helpers, so the assumption they don't possess the ability as readily as professionals to take care of themselves," noted the President.

Only a few Filipinos availed of the repatriation offered by the government, Aquino said.

While he admitted that Philippine contingency forces in Syria is still not enough, Aquino assured that the government is trying to do its best to reach critical areas such as Daraa, Latakia, and Homs, all are under alert level 3.

An estimated 4,110 Filipinos work in these areas.

The Philippine government earlier urged the Syrian government to do its best "to end the hostilities and ensure the safety of the Syrian people and all foreign nationals."

Palace spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, meanwhile, said the Philippines will not cut its political and economic ties with Syria despite calls from the United States government.

Violence in Syria continues to worsen as Syrian president Bashar al Assad insists to cling to power despite massive protests.

Assad has launched military operations in Latakia, the opposition stronghold of Hama, the central city of Homs, as well as the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, reports said.

The Associated Press reported that heavy machine-gun fire erupted across the besieged Syrian city of Latakia on Tuesday as the death toll rose to 35 from a military assault now in its fourth day.

While the tension escalates, prompting the Philippine government to repatriate its citizens in Syria, Filipinos intending to work there will be temporarily disallowed from leaving the Philippines.

Deployment of overseas Filipino workers will temporarily be halted until the situation improves, the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) said on Tuesday.

The temporary deployment ban covers new hires and those who previously worked in Syria, POEA Administrator Carlos Cao said. (Jill Beltran/FP/With AP/Sunnex)

Related story: 4,000 Pinoys in Syria urged to return home