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RP-Malaysia joint naval exercise underway

The Philippines and Malaysia began yesterday their joint annual naval exercises in waters considered a key conduit for al-Qaeda-linked militants, human traffickers and arms smugglers, officials said.

The 10-day exercises, involving six navy ships and about 300 personnel, would allow the navies of the two Southeast Asian countries to communicate faster and jointly catch pirates, suspected terrorists and other outlaws, Philippine Navy Capt. Orwen Cortez said at a press briefing.

"Maritime terrorism is a big problem, but it’s not the only crime being committed in the maritime environment," Cortez said.

"We have other transnational crimes such as trafficking of drugs, human beings, military hardware," he said during ceremonies marking the start of the drill at Navy headquarters on Roxas Boulevard.

"We would concentrate on maritime security operations, to strengthen our interoperability in going after enemies at sea in our respective countries," he added.

"The porosity of borders is something that we should consider. With an enhanced interoperability, we hope to address this problem. We really need to look after our borders," Capt. Hadji Rusli Bin Hadji Idrus of the Royal Malaysian Navy, said.

He said he was confident of the success of the naval drill. "We share a common naval language, added to the fact that we have been doing this annually since 1997."

Guarding the sprawling sea border has been daunting, especially for the Philippines, which has one of Asia’s weakest militaries.

A major problem is the influx of illegal Filipino migrants from the southern region of Mindanao to Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state.

Al-Qaeda-linked Indonesian militants also have been traveling to Mindanao for terrorist training in Filipino rebel strongholds via Malaysia, Filipino security officials have said.

Malaysian security officials have expressed concern over the possibility of Islamic militants belonging to the Abu Sayyaf group and their Indonesian allies fleeing to Malaysia to escape a massive US-backed offensive on the Southern Philippine island of Jolo, which is a few hours by boat from Sabah.

The Philippine Navy has set up a blockade off Jolo to prevent the militants from escaping to Malaysia or outlying islands, Cortez said.

Abu Sayyaf gunmen aboard speedboats crossed from Jolo to Malaysia’s Sipadan diving resort in April 2000 and abducted 21 Western tourists and Asian workers, who were later released in exchange for ransom.

The joint naval exercise is dubbed MALPHI-LAUT 10-07. MALPHI is short for Malaysia and Philippines, while laut is a Malay word for sea.

The war games will involve three Malaysian missile corvettes – KD Kedah, KD Laksamana Tan Pusmah, and KD Yu. The Philippine Navy’s BRP Quezon, BRP Artemio Ricarte and BRP Bienvenido Salting are also taking part in the exercise. – With AP

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