US warship in CDO has been “going around” since January

“But where is the term of reference for this?” lawyer Beverly Musni, convenor of US Troops Out Now, told reporters, as she condemned the Philippine Coast Guard for allegedly preventing 10 bancas of protesters from moving closer to the heavily-guarded US warship in Macabalan shortly before noon Thursday.

Roberto de Leon, formerly of Laguna, now chief of the ship’s Central Control Station, told reporters they arrived in the Philippines in January and had been “going around” since. He said they docked in Zamboanga, Cotabato and General Santos but a colleague corrected him they had not been to Zamboanga.

De Leon and other crew members  do not answer questions like “from here, where are you going” or how is the ship helping the Philippines in its counter-insurgency efforts.”

“I’m sorry I cannot answer that. But we support the Philippine government,” he said.

The warship, considered “one of the smallest ships” in the US Naval Force, is here for a three-day “goodwill visit,”

The ship can carry two Seahawk helicopters although only one was on board during the media tour on Thursday morning; three torpedo tubes on each side of the ship; the largest weapon on board –  a 76 mm which can fire 80 rounds per minute against targets within nine nautical miles and six air miles, each ammunition similar to a 35-pounder bomb in the past;  and a close in weapon system, Mark 15 Phalanx, capable of firing up to 4,000 rounds per minute.

The ship has a crew of 240, 10% or 24 of them Filipino-Americans.

Protesters had been hounding the warship since it docked  here Tuesday morning, March 25 but none of them could get close enough to the ship to get their message across due to tight security. Huge container vans had been placed side by side to form a barricade of sorts. Batches of US Navy frogmen took turns monitoring underwater, according to Philippine security personnel at the wharf.

The protesters’ very colorful streamers read, “US Troops Out Now!” and  “US: No. 1 terrorist,” among others.

“Really? I didn’t know about,” Ensign Alain Kuei, an electrical officer who was the tour guide of the media group, said. MindaNews had asked him how he felt about the protest actions that greeted them since their arrival here.

Berryl Tranco of the League of Filipino Students (LFS) and convenor of Youth Resist, one of those on board the banca, said they were approached by Coast Guard boats and warned not to proceed to where the US warship was docked, or face arrest.

Reporters watching near where the warship was docked, saw the bancas approaching but later turning away about a kilometer from Vandegrift.  Three bancas of Badjaos (sea gypsies), however, were allowed to move beyond the alleged demarcation line, several hundred meters away from the buoy surrounding the warship.

Reporters initially thought it was the Philippine Navy patrol boat number 393, docked very near Vandegrift earlier in the morning, and which was returning from where the bancas were turned back, that warned the protesters from proceeding.

But the boat captain surnamed Agudelo said they merely drew water for the boat.. He declined to be interviewed, saying they have a chain of command and instead referred reporters to call their spokesperson in Davao City, some 300 kilometers away.

But he asked reporters, “bakit, may permit ba silang mag-rally sa dagat?”  (Why, do they have a permit to hold a rally at sea?)

Musni told MindaNews, “bakit, may permit ba yang mga Kano to come here without Terms Of Reference?” (do these Americans have a permit to come here without TOR?)

At the Combat Information Center of the ship, crewmembers repeatedly said “no camera, please.” By accident, a camera flashed, prompting a crewmember to get the owner’s digital camera. The camera’ memory card was taken.

The City Information Office had reported late afternoon of March 24 that the US warship was arriving afternoon the next day. Musni said the ship arrived in the morning.

The report said officers of the USS Vandegrift were scheduled to “visit an orphanage and interact with the orphans through reading books; playing games; donating toys, school and toiletry supplies and refurbishment of basketball hoops.”

The officers were also scheduled to “turn over  materials to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) under its Project Handclasp that is expected to benefit women.”

Officers were seen returning to the ship Thursday noon after a game of golf.

In General Santos, the USS Vandegrift docked for two days on March 11 and 12 “for a series of firefighting drills & other onboard exercises with the Philippine Navy,” the city’s website said.

Cagayan de Oro City Mayor Constantino Jaraula, according to the City Information Office report, said he was optimistic the goodwill visit of USS Vandegrift “will boost the city’s reputation as a safe place in Mindanao where foreign guests can visit for tourism or investment purposes.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)