RP-US war games on next month

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — LARGE-SCALE exercises between the Philippine and US military will resume next month after being suspended over the jailing of a US marine for rape, the US embassy said Tuesday.

The maneuvers, called Balikatan, will run from Feb. 8 to March 4 and will focus on humanitarian projects in the strife-torn south, the embassy said in a statement.

Both sides will work on civil-military operations, including bringing medical assistance to areas such as Sulu Island, where Al Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants are on the run from a major military offensive, it said.

Bilateral ties between the United States and the Philippines soured last month when Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith was sentenced to 40 years for raping a Filipina.

Washington indefinitely suspended the military maneuvers when a Makati court initially refused to hand over custody of Smith to the US embassy.

Citing damage to strategic relations, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo subsequently ordered Smith’s transfer to the US embassy while the rape conviction went to the Court of Appeals.

Dozens of US troops are deployed in Sulu 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.

Government troops announced over the weekend they had killed Khadaffy Janjalani, the chieftain of the brutal Abu Sayyaf group, in a jungle clash in Jolo in September. DNA test results confirmed his death on Saturday, the military said.

Days earlier, Army Special Forces gunned down Abu Solaiman, a veteran Abu Sayyaf guerrilla who was seen as a possible successor to Janjalani.

Janjalani and Solaiman were accused of plotting the kidnapping of American and Filipino tourists from a resort on the southeastern island of Palawan in 2001, during which one of the Americans was beheaded, as well as a 2004 ferry blast that killed 116 people in Manila.

The battlefield successes, backed by US intelligence operations in the southern Philippines, prompted CIA Director Michael Hayden last week to praise US-Philippine cooperation as having “contributed greatly to strengthening the capacity of the Philippine Armed Forces and the Philippine security services.”

“Our victories against the Abu Sayyaf highlight the success of our training and intelligence fusion programs with the United States,” Mrs. Arroyo said.

The 2001 kidnapping spree by the Abu Sayyaf brought the first American troops to Mindanao.

They have since maintained presence in southern Zamboanga City and nearby Sulu, the hotbed of Muslim militants, although the nature of the Balikatan exercise has changed slightly to include humanitarian operations as part of efforts to win over the local population.

The embassy said this year’s exercise would include medical, dental, veterinary and engineering projects by Filipino and US personnel on Mindanao, as well as military training.

US navy ship visits also are planned.