U.S. troops to stay in Philippines amid disputes

Despite all disputes, American troops will continue to stay in Mindanao unless the Philippine government ask them to leave, the U.S. embassy in Manila said on Tuesday.

Rebecca Thompson, spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy, said that American troops are in the Southeast Asian country because they are "invited" by Manila and that their presence is covered by the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a bilateral defense agreement signed by the Philippines and U.S. governments.

"I can only emphasize that U.S. forces serve here at the request of your government," said the spokesperson.

"U.S. troops are here at the invitation of the government of the Philippines and they're here to support and share information with the Armed Forces of the Philippines," she added.

Thompson made the statement amid criticism that the "visiting" U.S. troops have "overstayed" in the country's southern region of Mindanao.

The United States in 1992 ended nearly a century of military presence in its former colony when it left the Subic naval base after the Philippine Senate refused to renew the two countries' military bases treaty.

In 2002, under the panoply of the Visiting Forces Agreement, U.S. special forces numbering about 200 men arrived in Zamboanga, Mindanao with a mission of training Philippine soldiers in fighting terrorists on nearby Basilan island. Over the years, their numbers have swollen to 600, with some units focusing on what officials described as "humanitarian missions."

The U.S. troops have been in Mindanao for six years, rather than a "temporary" stay of six months in accordance with the agreement involved, said Renato Reyes, head of Bayan, or New Patriotic Alliance. Bayan is a Philippine political coalition of over 1,000 grassroots and progressive organizations.

Reyes said that Bayan has already filed a petition questioning the constitutionality of the agreement and that the Philippine Supreme Court has set oral arguments about it for Sept. 19.

"The problem with the VFA is that it does not define in clear and uncertain terms the scope, duration of stay and the extent of the engagement of U.S. troops. In some ways, it is worse than the previous U.S. bases agreement because of its vagueness. For all intents and purposes, an unlimited number of U.S. troops can stay here for an unlimited period of time, even if there are no joint military exercises," Reyes said.

"If that isn't virtual basing, then what is?" he added.

Last week, leading newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that the so-called "visiting forces" seem to have become a permanent deployment in the southern Philippines.

Edgar Araojo, a political science professor at the Western Mindanao State University, told the newspaper that he had found several U.S. military facilities established by the Americans in Zamboanga, Mindanao.

On Tuesday, Thompson reiterated that the United States is not maintaining a permanent military base in Mindanao.

She said that the U.S. soldiers assigned in Mindanao are not based there permanently, but are assigned on "short tours of duty."

"Everything they do is coordinated with or at the request of the AFP (Armed Forces the Philippines). Everything they do is according to the Visiting Forces Agreement and troops here are on short tours of duty," said the spokesperson.

American officials in Manila admitted that U.S. military structures in Mindanao do exist. However, they said those are only for "temporary" use.

They are being utilized only for "medical, logistical, administrative services" and as facilities for American soldiers "for them to eat, sleep and work," according to the U.S. embassy.

They said that U.S. troops "train, advise, and assist" the Philippine military in their war against terror and denied that they are engaged in actual combat.

Foreign troops are prohibited under the Constitution to engage in combat operation in the Philippines.

The continued presence of U.S. forces in Mindanao, a region constantly plagued by war, have come under fire recently from critics and militant groups, saying the Americans have already established a de-facto military base in the South.

They said that the U.S. military has never left the country and continues to maintain small, discreet units in the Philippines even after their bases were shut down in 1992.

[Source: China View, Xinhua, Manila, 09Sep08]

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