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Filipinos Jam Palace for Calls to Kin in Gulf


MANILA — Many of them waiting 10 hours or more, thousands of anxious Filipinos have jammed the presidential palace here for the last six days to make free telephone calls to family members working in Saudi Arabia and other countries caught up in the Persian Gulf War.

Hundreds of women, many clutching small children and crumpled phone numbers, filled the driveway and garden in front of Malacanang Palace on Tuesday, while long lines snaked through the elegant Spanish-era building to a second-floor hall where 10 telephone booths have been set up and more than 6,000 calls have been made.

"He is OK, he is fine," said Hejara Racman, 31, tears streaming down her face, moments after she reached her husband in eastern Saudi Arabia. She had waited seven hours to make the call.

"He said he wants to come home," said Monica Barredo, who waited 11 hours to speak to her husband in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Arceh Sunga, who lives four hours away and waited 11 hours for her call, also got through to her husband.

"He said, 'Don't panic,' " she said with a grin.

The Philippine government has offered free three-minute phone calls to families of overseas workers since the war began. About 391,000 Filipinos are working in Saudi Arabia, including 110,000 in the Eastern Province that borders Kuwait. At least 500,000 Filipinos are believed to be working in the gulf region.

Although the government helped to repatriate 28,000 workers from Kuwait and Iraq last fall, at least 30,000 Filipinos, including many of those evacuated, later returned for high-paying jobs in Saudi Arabia and nearby countries, officials said.

Minda Marfori, 32, returned to her job as a medical technician in Jubayl, eastern Saudi Arabia, three weeks ago after returning home to give birth. Now her mother, Ligaya Mauricio, is holding vigil at Malacanang, studying a bulletin board posted with names of about 1,600 Filipinos relocated from border towns near the war zone. So far, she's been unable to contact her daughter.

"I told her not to go back," Mauricio said, worry etched on her face. "I told her, 'What is the use of earning so much if you will die?' "

Some in the crowd waited until 3 a.m. before they could call, officials said. Myra Sabornido, eight months pregnant, had already stood nine hours in line by sunset.

"I'll stay until I can call my husband," she said nervously. "I am so worried."

President Corazon Aquino visited the waiting crowd Monday afternoon to recount how U.S. Patriot missiles had shot down Scud missiles fired into Saudi Arabia from Iraq. "Everything is OK," she said, as the women cheered.

Others aren't so sure. Philippine police Tuesday interrogated two Iraqi brothers, sons of an Iraqi diplomat formerly stationed here, who are suspected of participating in a bungled bombing by two Iraqis near a U.S. library here Saturday.

National Bureau of Investigation chief Alfredo Lim said Hisham Hikmat Abdul Sattar, 26, acted as "guide and adviser" to the two would-be bombers. The bomb exploded prematurely, killing one of the men and wounding the other. The second-ranking Iraqi diplomat here, identified as the local head of Iraqi intelligence services, has been ordered to leave the country by noon Thursday.

Sattar denied involvement in the bombing.

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