US troops to remain in Mindanao – DND

Jess Diaz - The Philippine Star

Yasay meeting with Kerry in Washington

MANILA, Philippines – American soldiers will remain in Mindanao despite President Duterte’s pronouncement that he wanted them out of the region so they won’t be targeted by members of the Abu Sayyaf, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said yesterday.

“We still need them there because they have the surveillance capability that our Armed Forces don’t have,” Lorenzana told the House appropriations committee.

He was responding to questions raised by leftist lawmakers who said they were not only supporting Duterte’s statement but would want all American troops in Mindanao and other parts of the country to leave for good.

Lorenzana said there are 107 US soldiers based in Zamboanga City conducting surveillance operations in Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi to help the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) fight terrorists.

“They are using two types of assets: a small aircraft with night flying capability and three drones,” he said.

In many cases, he said the Americans send their surveillance assets to areas identified by the AFP.

He added that of the 107, 50 are Marines, 17 are Army soldiers and 20 belong to Special Forces units.

Lorenzana pointed out the chances of the Americans being attacked or kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf – as voiced out by the President – are a remote possibility.

“They are located in a compound inside Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City. If they go out of the camp, they are either accompanied by our soldiers or are armed. Remember that these US soldiers are combatants,” he said.

He said US soldiers in Mindanao used to number 600 a few years ago. “Before, they were embedded with our units in the field up to the brigade level,” he said.

He later told reporters that the country needs its military alliance with the US and the agreements on cooperation the two nations have signed like the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

He said he has explained the importance of the alliance and the agreements to Duterte.

“I think it’s just right for us to remain allied with the US. They are still the dominant military force in this part of the Pacific. Our neighbors – Japan, Australia, South Korea – have military alliance with the US,” he said.

Under EDCA, the defense chief said American troops have been given access to five military camps – Basa Air base in Floridablanca in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Mactan Air base in Cebu, Lumbia Air base in Cagayan de Oro City, and a camp in Palawan.

“We are spending for our facilities in these camps and the Americans are spending for their facilities,” he said.

At Camp Aguinaldo, AFP public affairs office chief Col. Edgard Arevalo said a withdrawal by the Americans would be a bane to the military’s counterterrorism efforts.

He said US forces have been providing intelligence information and technical assistance to the military. They also provide humanitarian and disaster assistance to communities, he added.

He expressed confidence Duterte’s pronouncements would not affect existing agreements like the EDCA. Duterte, he pointed out, made the pronouncement out of concern for the safety of US forces. “They could be victims of retaliation,” he said of the US soldiers.

AFP spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla earlier echoed Lorenzana’s explanation of Duterte’s asking for a US pullout.

“Pursuant to the same statement, he (Duterte) desires that our American counterparts should be eased from harm’s way.  This refers to Western Mindanao where intense focused military operations combatting terrorism are ongoing,

“We take due notice of the pronouncement of the Commander-in-Chief President Duterte expressing his concern of the safety of US Servicemen in Mindanao,” he added.

For his part, AFP chief of staff Gen. Ricardo Visaya said the military is verifying information that the terrorist group ISIS is in contact with the Abu Sayyaf whose members are on the run due to intensified military operation.

“We have the Abu Sayyaf under control in Basilan. We are now pursuing them in Sulu,” he said.

During the hearing, appropriations committee members reiterated their concern for the ballooning appropriations for pension benefits for retired AFP personnel.

They noted that the military would need P44 billion next year for pension, an amount that is P12 billion bigger than its operating budget of P32 billion.

President Duterte himself has called for reforming the pension-retirement system in the military.

Ready to explain

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. , meanwhile, said he is ready to explain the President’s pronouncement to Secretary of State John Kerry – if asked – at a private dinner with heads of state and foreign ministers to be hosted by the US official.

Yasay left Tuesday night for Washington before proceeding to New York to represent Duterte in the United Nations General Assembly.

DFA spokesman Charles Jose said no one-on-one meeting has been requested or arranged between Yasay and Kerry.

“I’m not sugarcoating it at all. You cannot dissociate, for instance, the fact that when he said that he wants the Americans out, you dissociate it from the fact that he said that he does not want these Americans to be harmed or be killed. This was the context,” Yasay said in an interview on News To Go.

“If Secretary of State John Kerry will ask me these questions, I will say the very things to him, and he will understand that. Alam niya naman na walang pagbabago ang (He knows there is no change in) policy,” he said.

Jose also said Yasay is set to meet with Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) chief executive officer Dana J. Hyde and speak before the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

He will also meet with the US-Philippine Society and the Filipino community at the Philippine embassy in Washington as well as with senior leaders of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Jose said Malacañang had already clarified the Philippines is not cutting its defense alliance with the US.

On Tuesday, Yasay said Duterte’s call for the withdrawal of US Special Forces from Mindanao was not an indication of policy shift as all agreements and treaties with the US would remain, including one allowing increased US military presence in the country.

He echoed the President’s explanation that the latter merely wanted the American soldiers out of harm’s way when expressed his wish that they leave Mindanao. Duterte had said the US presence in Mindanao was complicating Philippine security forces’ anti-terror operations. - With Pia Lee-Brago, Cecille Suerte Felipe

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