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US/PHILPPINES: Civilian Deaths Cue Against Joint War Games

Stella Gonzales

MANILA, Feb 14 2008 (IPS) - Non-government organisations (NGOs) opposed to the presence of United States troops in the country are calling for a suspension of U.S.-Philippine joint military exercises scheduled for Feb.18.

Their cause has received a boost from a supposed clash between Filipino soldiers and members of the al-Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf Group on Feb. 4, in the province of Sulu in southern Philippines, that resulted in the deaths of seven civilians – including three children and a pregnant woman – and an off-duty soldier.

A witness has claimed that U.S. soldiers had accompanied the Filipino troops during the clash in the village of Ipil in Maimbung town.

Officials said they would investigate the claim before studying the proposal to cancel the military exercise where about 600 U.S. troops are expected to participate. The exercise, called Balikatan (which literally means shoulder to shoulder), will be held in several areas in the country, including Sulu.

According to the U.S. embassy in Manila, there will be no war games in Sulu and Mindanao during the Balikatan, which will last until Mar. 3. Instead, it said, “humanitarian assistance projects” will be conducted in these places. These projects include the construction and repair of schools and other infrastructure.

The embassy also denied that U.S. soldiers were involved in the Sulu incident. It stressed that US.. troops are not allowed to join combat operations of the Philippine military and that they merely give advice and share information with the armed forces of the Philippines.

For Corazon Fabros of the Stop the War Coalition, the embassy’s denial was “expected and consistent with their usual responses” to accusations about the involvement of U.S. troops in what are supposed to be local military operations.

The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance) or Bayan criticised the embassy for issuing the denial even without the benefit of an independent investigation into the incident. Bayan said the human rights abuses, allegedly being committed by U.S. soldiers, should not be ignored and warrants the immediate prosecution of the perpetrators.

Fabros, who is a lawyer, said there was a need to properly document the information from witnesses who can confirm the involvement of U.S soldiers so that their testimony “could hold when presented to any investigating body or even before the courts”. She said the challenge now is to find “witnesses who can come out in the open and testify without being afraid for their lives.” She said that there is “so much fear” on the part of the local community. “You have the U.S. troops practically stationed right in your backyard. Plus, the strong Philippine military presence in the area is enough to keep anybody, no matter how brave they are, from openly testifying.”

This is why, she said, a fact finding mission to Sulu is being organised by several groups next week. The mission will “document and hear out statements from people who have first hand information.”

There is a need, Fabros said, “to systematise our monitoring and documentation and to engage the government to address this continuing U.S. intervention in the Philippines”.

Since its launching in 2006, the Coalition, which is composed of several organisations, has been calling for a stop to the annually-held balikatan.

The Coalition said the statement of the witness in the Sulu killings “corroborates previous claims that U.S. troops have been engaged in active combat in the Philippines.”

The witness, Sandrawina Wahid, whose husband was among those killed, told reporters that she was blindfolded by Filipino soldiers after she saw four U.S. soldiers on board a naval boat where she and her husband’s body were taken after the clash. Wahid’s husband was a soldier who was on vacation at the time. He was reportedly shot by the soldiers even after he told them that he was from the army.

But according to the military, the pre-dawn clash was a “legitimate encounter” between Filipino troops and Abu Sayyaf rebels. The military said the soldiers were searching for a businesswoman who had been kidnapped by rebels. It said two soldiers were even killed during the clash.

Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan, however, said the two soldiers were killed by “friendly fire” between the two military units involved in the incident.

Also, initial findings of the regional office of the Commission on Human Rights reportedly showed that there were no Abu Sayyaf members in the village when the alleged clash took place. The office also said that the kidnapped businesswoman was not in the area at the time. Residents also told the commission that soldiers burned several houses in their village. They also said the military surrounded their village and fired at their houses.

A member of the House of Representatives wants a congressional inquiry into the incident.

The armed forces said that 50 soldiers involved in the supposed clash, including three officers who received training from U.S. troops, have been ordered to remain in their barracks and “restrained from participating in military operations” until the completion of an official investigation.

The provincial government of Sulu is finalising charges against the military in connection with the killings that the local board, in a resolution, called a “massacre.”

As for the NGOs calling for the scrapping of the annual military exercises of Philippine and U.S. troops, they admit that a lot of work still has to be done before they could build enough momentum similar to that when the Philippine Senate rejected, in 1991, the renewal of a U.S. military basing agreement.

“It will be tremendous work to reach the level of opposition that we were able to mount for the closure of the U.S. bases,” said Fabros. “But it is a task that we must necessarily face.”

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