US 7th Fleet chief regrets damage

Jaime Laude (The Philippine Star) - January 22, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The US Navy expressed regret after the minesweeper USS Guardian ran aground and damaged the protected Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea last week.

“As a protector of the sea and a sailor myself, I greatly regret any damage this incident has caused to the Tubbataha Reef,” said Vice Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US 7th Fleet, in a statement released by the US 7th Fleet.

“We know the significance of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and its importance as a World Heritage Site. Its protection is vital, and we take seriously our obligations to protect and preserve the maritime environment,” he added.

The USS Guardian, which just completed a port call in Subic Bay, ran aground at Tubbataha last Thursday due to strong waves.

In an initial statement, the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) blamed the mishap on wrong map navigational data being followed by the vessel.

“Rear Adm. Thomas Carney, commander of the Logistics Group Western Pacific, has been tasked as the on-scene commander effective Jan. 21 to oversee recovery efforts for the Guardian,” the US 7th Fleet statement said. Carney is based in Singapore.

“Carney will embark the destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) which, along with several other US Navy vessels, is focused on preventing any further environmental damage to the reef and surrounding marine environment,” the statement said.

Strong waves had dislodged the 68-meter USS Guardian from its original position, causing it to make a 90-degree turn, possibly increasing the more damage to the reef that has been declared as a World Heritage.

Once the minesweeper is recovered, the US government will continue to work with the Philippine government to assess the extent of damage to the reef and the surrounding marine environment caused by the grounding, the 7th Fleet said.

The USPACOM would deploy a missile-firing warship to Tubbahata Reef as part of its salvage operations for the minesweeper.

Aside from the USS Guardian, the USPACOM has already deployed five support vessels to the country’s declared marine protected park – USS Bowditch, a pathfinder class oceanographic ship; three salvage tugs and MV-C Champion, a transport ship.

The US Navy had prevented four ships from the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard to go near the disabled USS Guardian.

US Navy officials have also barred rangers of the Tubbataha Marine Park Management from boarding the minesweeper to conduct an investigation.

US ship ignored warnings

Palawan Rep. Antonio Alvarez said the USS Guardian’s crew ignored the “no navigation” markings in maritime maps released by the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority that had long declared Tubbataha as a “no navigation” zone.

“It willfully trespassed. It wasn’t lost. It was the voyage of an intruder,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez said even tuna boats in General Santos City are equipped with global positioning systems and the US vessel is equipped with better navigation tools, so it is improbable that the vessel lost its way.

He said the crew of the ship “wanted to take a quick dip in the reef famous for its pristine corals and clear waters and they should just admit it was an R-and-R (rest and recreation) gone wrong.”

Zambales Rep. Milagros Magsaysay said the US Navy should pay for the damage the vessel had caused on the reef.

Sen. Gregorio Honasan asked yesterday the US government to explain why its military ship was in Tubbataha Reef, a Philippine territory.

In a press conference of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), Honasan said the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) should demand an explanation from the US government on the presence of the US warship in Philippine territory.

Former senator Juan Miguel Zubiri asked Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario to require US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. to explain why the US government allowed its ship to enter Philippine territory.

“The US Navy is not the US government. It does not represent the US government. The US government must be the one to apologize to the Philippine government. Our friendship with the US must be reciprocal,” Zubiri said.

A militant fishermen’s group sent yesterday a letter to US President Barrack Obama to protest the alleged flagrant violation of Philippine sovereignty over the damage caused by the US Navy ship that ran aground at Tubbataha Reef.

“Mr. President, what is also lamentable is the extreme political arrogance displayed by US military officials under the Asia Pacific

Command,” said the letter sent by the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang

Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) to the White House in Washington.

Pamalakaya lamented that US authorities even prevented Philippine officials from inspecting the USS Guardian, as if Tubbataha Reef and the entire archipelgo are within the territory of America outside the US mainland.

Members of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) staged a rally near the US embassy in Manila to protest the damage caused by the US Navy ship to Tubbataha Reef.

“The Philippine government must assert its sovereignty on this matter, and send a clear message to Obama that we will not allow our national interests to be trampled on. Otherwise, it will be four more years of shameless subservience and mendicancy for the Philippines. That’s another four years where sovereignty is sacrificed in the name of special relations,” said Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes.

Reyes said that unless the Phl-US Visiting Forces Agreement is abrogated, more maritime disasters would inevitably take place in the country. – With Pia Lee-Brago, Paolo Romero, Jose Rodel Clapano, Rhodina Villanueva, Ding Cervantes


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