Olongapo SubicBay BatangGapo Newscenter

Saturday, December 23, 2006

US cancels Balikatan 2007

Malacañang says it’s just ‘temporary setback’ Embassy official cites custody of Smith as reason

The United States Embassy yesterday confirmed that the US has called off its annual Balikatan military exercises with the Philippines over a dispute on the custody of Marine Daniel Smith, who was convicted recently of charges of raping a Filipina inside the former US naval base in Subic Bay, Zambales.

US embassy spokesman Matthew Lussenhop said the US military decided to call off the joint war games in February, citing the disagreement over the custody of Smith, who received a 40-year jail term from a Filipino judge for the Nov. 1, 2005 rape.

"The Balikatan 2007 would be cancelled. The reason is the current custody dispute," he said.

Admiral William J. Fallon, commander of US Forces in the Pacific, reportedly stated the American military’s cancellation of the Balikatan exercises was due to the Philippine government’s continuous holding of Smith.

This year’s Balikatan exercises were supposed to involve 4,700 American and 3,000 Filipino soldiers.

"The US wants protection of US military personnel if they come here. It wouldn’t be prudent to bring in US troops (if there is no guarantee of protection)," Lussenhop said.

He reiterated the US government’s commitment to abide by the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that governs the treatment of soldiers convicted of crimes committed in the Philippines.

"The VFA provides the legal framework but since the Philippine government is not complying, it is not prudent for additional forces to come until the custody issue is resolved," Lussenhop said.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo recently signed an agreement with US Ambassador Kristie Kenney reiterating that the US embassy has custodial rights over the convicted marine.

The agreement was signed to satisfy the requirement of Judge Benjamin Pozon of the Makati Regional Trial Court Branch 139 that the signatories of the agreement on the custody of Smith should include President Arroyo or Romulo.

The agreement, signed on Dec. 19, was the third signed between the two countries following the custody dispute.

When asked if the US will also stop its humanitarian aid to Manila, Lussenhop said the US government "has no plan to curtail the ongoing humanitarian assistance."

"We’re not talking of civil aid, we’re talking of Balikatan," he said.

He said he is still uncertain on the reported pullout of US aid teams in typhoon-stricken areas in the Philippines.

Foreign Affairs spokesman Eduardo Malaya said the DFA "has not been officially notified" on the cancellation of the military exercises.

‘Temporary setback, says Palace says of Balikatan cancellation


Malacanang yesterday described as a "temporary setback" the pullout of the United States in the joint military exercises with the Philippines over the issue on the custody of a US soldier convicted of raping a Filipina inside a former US naval base in Olongapo City.

Presidential chief legal counsel Sergio Apostol expressed confidence that the Court of Appeals will eventually rule favorably on the government’s petition to allow the return of US Marine Daniel Smith, who was convicted recently of charges of raping a Filipina, to US custody from a local jail.

"We are confident because I think we have complied with the international agreement as evidenced by our actions," Apostol said.

Press Ignacio Bunye refused to issue any comment.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez said of the US decision to cancel the military games, "It’s their prerogative. It is not mandatory to them to have joint military operations with us. It’s possible they are afraid that another similar incident might happen and their soldier might be put in harm’s way."

Gonzalez admitted the US pullout from the war games was "an expression of displeasure" over the custody issue.

Last Tuesday, the Court of Appeals junked the petition by Smith to be transferred to the US embassy pending an appeal of his conviction.

Secretary Gonzalez blamed the Subic rape court ruling for the US decision to cancel next year’s Balikatan military exercises.

He revealed that the US government has pulled out its troops assisting the thousands of people displaced by the recent calamity in Bicol.

The justice chief said he likewise received information that the US would no longer push through with its plan to conduct joint exercises with the members of the Philippine National Police (PNP). The US actions indicate that the relation between the two countries has been strained due to the failure of the Philippines to perform its obligation to perform its obligations under the VFA.

"We cannot blame the US for its actions because we don’t seem to know how to respect our treaty with them. That is unfortunate because the government has always been willing to comply with its treaty obligations, unfortunately we cannot avoid the processes of the courts," the DoJ chief said.
By CHARISSA M. LUCI - Manila Bulletin


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