MALACANANG, December 17, 2003 (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva - After going through the usual military welcome honors at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Centennial Terminal yesterday, President Arroyo motored directly to the Christ the King chapel in Greenmeadows, Quezon City to pay her last respects to the late Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople.

Mrs. Arroyo was supposed to have met Ople in Bahrain where she just concluded an overnight state visit, but he succumbed to pulmonary heart attack on board the plane enroute to the Middle East last Saturday.

The last time Mrs. Arroyo saw Ople alive was in Tokyo, Japan where they both participated in the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit last Dec. 11-12.

Ople stayed behind in Tokyo until Saturday when he took off for Bahrain but his plane had to make an emergency landing in Taiwan after he suffered a heart attack in mid-air.

On Monday, Mrs. Arroyo issued Proclamation 514 declaring a six-day period of national mourning and the flying at half-mast of Philippine flags in all government buildings from Dec. 15 until the state burial of Ople this Sunday at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

"I call on the Armed Forces of the Philippines to give Secretary Blas Ople a state funeral and burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani if the Ople family so wishes," Mrs. Arroyo stated in the proclamation.

The family of Ople originally planned to bury him in his home province in Sta. Monica, Hagonoy, Bulacan beside the graves of his parents.

However, upon the suggestion of Mrs. Arroyo, his widow acceded to bury him at the Libingan at high noon on Sunday.

The Libingan is a national heroes cemetery where lie buried former presidents of the Republic, national artists and scientists, patriots and World War II soldiers like Ople himself.

Accompanied by her husband, First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, the President proceeded to the wake and condoled with the bereaved Ople family led by his widow Susana and children.

In front of the flag-draped casket of Ople, with two Philippine Marines standing as honor guards at both ends, Mrs. Arroyo said her silent prayers for the late Cabinet official.

Displayed beside the casket was the Presidential Sikatuna Award, with the rank of Datu and Medal of Honor, which Mrs. Arroyo had conferred on him last Aug. 13 on the first anniversary of his appointment as DFA secretary.

In an official statement issued at the Palace yesterday, Mrs. Arroyo justified her decision to accord a state funeral for Ople at the Libingan.

"His immense contributions to our nationís development include his fearless championing of workers rights, his pioneering drive to promote overseas employment, and his crafting of major foreign policy initiatives from the protection of our OFWs to our Republicís prominent role in social and economic development issues, global alliance against terrorism and the vital programs of the United Nations," the President cited in Proclamation 514.

"Secretary Ople deserves the highest accolade the State can give in accord with the wishes of his family to have a peaceful and solemn mourning," Mrs. Arroyo added. "He (Ople) was our bridge from the past to the future, a moving spirit of nation-building through many seasons."

Opleís remains will be transferred today to the Senate for necrological services. Ople was once the Senate president and he was an opposition senator when Mrs. Arroyo recruited him to join her Cabinet in July last year.

His remains would then be taken to the DFA office on Roxas Boulevard in Pasay City for overnight vigil and separate necrological rites held for him at the National Press Club before the body is taken to Hagonoy for the last two days of the wake on Friday and Saturday.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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