The deployment of two battalions to the Middle East, as proposed by President Rodrigo Duterte, will be solely to facilitate the evacuation of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Iraq, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Wednesday.

“Ang idea ni Presidente is magpadala tayo dun just in case na kailangan ng mga tao natin ng proteksyon (The idea of the President is to sent troops there just in case our people will need protection). The two battalions will not be there to engage in combat to anybody but to facilitate or help assist in the repatriation of the OFWs, especially in Iraq,” Lorenzana said in an interview with reporters shortly after the Department of National Defense (DND) – Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) New Year’s Call in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.

These troops will come from the Philippine Marine Corps and the Philippine Army’s Special Operation Command.

A battalion is composed of about 350 to 500 officers and enlisted personnel.

Lorenzana, however, said these troops can also protect the Filipino evacuees and those helping them in the repatriation.

When asked whether they have Rules of Engagement for these soldiers, he said there is none to date.

“Wala pa ngayon dahil we are still in the planning stage. We are still preparing the troops tapos si (Foreign Affairs) Secretary (Teodoro) Locsin naman ay nakikipag-negotiate, nakikipag-ugnayan sa mga ibang bansa dun kung ano ba yung kailangang mga papeles para pumasok yung mga tao natin and other logistics kasi magpapadala tayo ng barko at mga eroplano — saan sila magla-landing, saan sila magdo-dock, so yung mga refurbishment, refueling, supplies, lahat yun aayusin natin (There is none for now because we are still in the planning stage. We are still preparing the troops while Secretary Locsin is currently negotiating and coordinating with other countries on what documents are needed before the entry of our people and other logistics because we are going to send ships and airplanes — where they will land or dock. We will arrange all the refurbishment, refueling, supplies),” Lorenzana added.

All Filipinos in Iran and Iraq, even those in Libya, who are willing to come home due to the tensions in the Middle East, will be brought home, especially if they are in danger.

Lorenzana said the greatest challenge is to convince the OFWs to go home as they don’t want to leave their jobs.

“But hopefully, we will be able to convince them — if their lives are in danger — to come home,” he added.

When asked on when repatriations would start, Lorenzana said a brand-new Philippine Coast Guard offshore patrol vessel, the BRP Gabriela Silang, which is now in Malta after leaving Saint-Nazaire, France last December, is headed for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and is expected to be there by Thursday.

“We will hold them there for a while so that if we will use it as a shuttle (of OFWs) from Iran or Iraq to Qatar and then from there we can maybe charter a plane or charter ships to bring them home,” he said.

Lorenzana noted that other assets can be used to transport the OFWs, such as two landing docks, the BRP Tarlac (LD-601) and BRP Davao Del Sur (LD-602), which were acquired from Indonesian shipbuilder PT PAL PERSERO in 2016 and 2017, are capable of carrying 500 troops or passengers.

Also earmarked for repatriation missions in the Middle East are two Air Force Lockheed C-130 cargo planes and an EADS CASA C-295 medium transport.

Lorenzana said that there are plans to use commercial planes and cruise ships in the planned repatriation should many OFWs opt to go home.

“Kung marami talaga ang sabi ni Presidente at saka ni (Department of Finance) Secretary (Carlos) Dominguez (If there are really many OFWs who want to go home, the President and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said, we might lease or hire (a) cruise ship, alam mo yung (You know a) cruise ship, mga 3,500 ang capacity nyan (It has a capacity of 3,500 passengers). Ngayon kung kunti-kunti lang, siguro (Now, if there are only few OFWs, maybe) we can charter a plane,” the DND chief said.