Philippines: February 20, 2004



MILF rebels attacked the home of a local official in the south, but part time security guards (civilians with guns) fought back and killed four of the attackers. This was yet another unexplained MILF action in violation of the ceasefire. The MILF leadership says, off the record, that these are MILF units that are no longer obeying orders from the top.

The "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) live-fire combat maneuvers start on the 23rd and run until March 7, with 2,500 US troops taking part in the training exercises with around 2,300 Filipino soldiers. The Americans are also bringing some significant air support with them: 46 assault and transport aircraft. Phase One is a combined task force (CTF) seminar and command post exercise, while Phase Two is cross training and the actual field training exercise. Phase Three is humanitarian and civic assistance, designed to improve US-Filipino civic relations.

Predictably, there are the usual protests against any American presence in the country. The communist NPA rebels originally threatened to attack any American units that strayed into their territories and later upped the ante by threatening to violently disrupt the exercises. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) promptly dismissed the rebels' threats. A former Lower House of Congress member criticized what he called President Gloria Arroyo's continuing betrayal to Philippine Sovereignty by allowing the upcoming joint military exercises. 

Around 600-700 personnel the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force arrived on the 15th, at the former American naval base at the Subic Bay, then stationed at an army base in Ternate (north of Manila) and on the western island of Palawan. The maneuvers are part of joint exercises by the two military countries, who have forged a close alliance under the banner of the US-led war on terrorism. 

The Marines stated that they are not there to engage "in any type of operations against any type of forces or organizations in the Philippines" or that the US is reestablishing bases in the country. 

While the exercises would include an imaginary conventional threat in Palawan (an island province close to the Spratly archipelago), President Arroyo assured neighboring countries that the war games were not related to Manila's sovereignty claim over the disputed Spratly islands, which straddle key shipping routes and rich fishing grounds in the South China Sea. The Spratlys are claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Five countries have put troops on islands or reefs in the chain. - Adam Geibel 


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