US troops in the Philippines to resume activities

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The US embassy in the Philippines said Tuesday that military maneuvers between US and domestic troops will resume next month after its suspension last month when a Philippine court refused to transfer custody of Daniel Smith, a US Marine convicted of raping a Filipina, to the US embassy.

In a statement, the US embassy said that the Balikatan exercises will be conducted from February 8 to March 4, focusing on civil-military operations like bringing medical assistance to war-torn areas where alleged Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants are active.

US Navy ship visits are also planned.

Dozens of US troops are deployed on Jolo island in humanitarian projects, but officials said they also helped provide intelligence data that led to the killings of the two top leaders of the Abu Sayyaf.

The Abu Sayyaf is on Washington's terrorist watchlist and has been blamed for bombings and for the kidnapping deaths of two Americans snatched in 2001.

US Ambassador to Manila, Kristie Kenney, said on Monday that relations between her country and the Philippines were back at a high after two of the most wanted Islamic militants here were killed.

"I feel very strongly that we must congratulate the Armed Forces of the Philippines. They are dedicated and doing a wonderful job of keeping the people safe," she said.

Ambassador Kenney said joint military exercises have been planned for all of 2007 but said they would focus mainly on humanitarian assistance.

Kenney’s statement as she joined US troops in distributing relief goods to Bicol victims of a recent supertyphoon, preceded the arrival on Wednesday of US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes.

The envoy’s remarks were a departure from the tough words issued by the US government at the height of the custody controversy over the US Marine rape convict.

Hughes’ three-day visit will be capped by a one-on-one meeting with President Arroyo. She will also meet with other government officials and visit Sulu, where American troops are helping the Philippine military supposedly to flush out Islamic militants.

It will be Hughes' first visit to Manila, where the US Embassy wants to shift the focus of the annual Balikatan joint military exercises between the two countries from military training to humanitarian efforts.

Meanwhile, activist group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan on Tuesday said it opposes the resumption of the RP-US military exercises by launching a nationwide mass protests on February 8.

Bayan Secretary-General Renato Reyes does not believe that the Balikatan will focus mainly on humanitarian missions in Mindanao.

“That is just a public relations ploy. The Balikatan is the biggest bilateral military exercises between the Philippines and the US. It has always been a showcase of US military might and forward presence in the region. The Balikatan has always been a major US military operation,” Reyes said.

The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) governing the annual Balikatan exercises, which usually brings 3000-5000 US troops to the Philippines, is castigated by several groups and individuals in the Philippines for its unconstitutionality and biased towards US interests.

“We must not forget the atrocities of the US then and the continuing atrocities and violations of national sovereignty that it commits now,” Reyes said.