[PHOTO AT LEFT -  Stranded tourists wait for transportation at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport following a takeover of the facility by the People’s Alliance for Democracy.]

MANILA, DECEMBER 1, 2008 (STAR) AP By Paolo Romero -  President Arroyo ordered yesterday the immediate airlift of Filipinos stranded in Thailand as the prolonged anti-government protests that shut down the country’s two main airports in the capital turned bloody.

Mrs. Arroyo tasked Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rafael Seguis to take all the Filipinos to Chiang Mai in the north and pay for their flights from there to Manila, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said.

“The Filipinos will be brought to Chiang Mai then will be flown back to Manila,” Ermita said in a statement.

Philippine carriers have cancelled flights to and from Bangkok’s main international airport Suvarnabhumi, which has been taken over by demonstrators pushing for the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

More than 1,200 Filipinos were believed stranded at the airport as of late last week, although press reports said this did not include those booked on non-Filipino airlines.

Ermita said Mrs. Arroyo has ordered the release of $15,000 to the embassy in Bangkok to defray the cost of repatriation.

Press Secretary Jesus Dureza, on the other hand, described the situation in Bangkok as “a critical problem” that prompted Mrs. Arroyo to take immediate measures.

Dureza called up Philippine Ambassador to Thailand Antonio Rodriguez yesterday and found out that among the Filipinos stranded are 89 workers returning home from Kuwait.

Those confirmed stranded include Lanao del Norte Rep. Abdullah Dimaporo and his delegation of 39 barangay officials.

Rodriguez confirmed the number of trapped Filipinos in Bangkok is expected to exceed 1,000. Most of them are staying in hotels and inns.

Dureza said the Filipinos would first travel by land aboard trucks and buses to Chiang Mai where the airport there is still under government control.

From there, they would take a special Philippine Airlines (PAL) flight to Manila by this afternoon or tomorrow.

Dureza said flag carrier Philippine Airlines had agreed to send a plane to airlift the stranded Filipinos, taking priority the PAL ticket holders.

He said the government is also trying to request assistance from Cebu Pacific to lend some of its aircraft for the airlift operations.

“We would like to assure everybody that the embassy is making effort to provide assistance to stranded Filipinos and protesters there are not harming at all the tourists,” Dureza said.

‘Mercy flights’

On Saturday, PAL expressed readiness to fly to Bangkok anytime but was awaiting word from Thailand’s airport authorities.

PAL said about 200 passengers have confirmed seats on the flight to Manila.

The number is expected to increase as the Philippine embassy in Thailand organizes the travel arrangements of Filipinos stuck in hotels in Bangkok and elsewhere.

PAL said they would be sending a B747-400, the largest aircraft in its fleet with a capacity of 433 seats and 24 tons of cargo.

PAL chairman Lucio Tan said he agreed to the repatriation operation, or “mercy flight,” for goodwill and solidarity with fellow countrymen who were caught in a crisis away from home.

“If necessary, we will add more mercy flights to Thailand to bring back our people,” Tan added.

Vice President Noli de Castro, presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers, said the Philippine Embassy in Thailand already arranged for the tourist buses to transport some 422 stranded Filipinos to Chiang Mai.

He said the Filipinos will take the PAL 747 jumbo jet flight out of Chiang Mai Airport which is expected to arrive in Manila past midnight.

De Castro said he had talked to PAL president Jaime Bautista who agreed to make the special arrangement on a non-commercial route.

“We thank PAL for the special arrangement to bring back home the stranded Filipinos in Thailand. On their part, it is public service and they agreed to our request that we coordinated,” he said.

De Castro said the number of stranded Filipinos would likely increase since Bangkok’s two airports remain closed.


Ambassador Rodriguez, meanwhile, said the Philippine embassy had been informed that a decision would be made this week by the Thai government on whether to postpone the ASEAN summit.

“We are hoping that the standoff would be resolved as soon as possible,” he said.

Rodriguez reported that 144 Filipinos are safe and billeted in various hotels in Bangkok. He said the embassy is providing them assistance.

The embassy recommended on Wednesday the postponement of non-essential travel to Bangkok citing the deteriorating situation and escalation of violence brought about by the campaign to oust Somchai.

The Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports in Bangkok have been shut down after thousands of angry Thai protesters stormed and occupied the airports to block the entry of Somchai, flying home after attending the APEC leaders’ summit in Peru.

The protesters had accused Somchai of being a lackey of ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Thai government on Thursday declared a state of emergency at both airports.

The continued failure of the Thai government to control the protesters has led to more calls for Somchai to step down, even from those who earlier opposed the protesters. –With Pia Lee-Brago, Rudy Santos, Jose Rodel Clapano

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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