US-Phil. Naval exercise begins; no R & R for US troops in Mindanao

SARANGANI BAY (MindaNews/01 July) — An estimated 400 American Navy and Coast Guard personnel taking part in naval exercises with Filipino troops in Mindanao are not allowed to have an R & R (Rest and Recreation) during the nine-day joint training exercise that begins July 2, a Navy official said on Sunday.

Around 400  members of the  Philippine Navy (PN) and 150 personnel from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)  are  joining the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2012 exercises.

This is the first time US forces are holding naval exercises in Mindanao, said Capt. Robert  Empedrad, CARAT 2012 exercise director.

Empedrad, also the deputy commander of the Naval Forces Eastern Mindanao Command, said the US soldiers will be strictly restricted to their designated areas “to avoid any untoward incidents or anything that would violate Philippine laws” and for security reasons

He told MindaNews it was the US side that sought the restriction. He said US authorities do not want a repeat of the rape case involving a US serviceman, apparently referring to the “Nicole” rape case involving US Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith at the Subic Bay Freeport Zone in Luzon in 2005.

Also, allowing the US troops to stray from their designated areas may lead to “ugly encounters” that militant groups could use to lambast both the Philippine and US governments, Empedrad added.

Two US vessels—the missile-guiding frigate USS Vandergrift and cutter-ship USCG Waesche—are taking part in the naval exercises in Mindanao.

USS Vandergrift arrived at around 1:05 p.m. Sunday near the mouth of Sarangani Bay and was met by Philippine Navy ship Salvador Abcede. USCG Waesche was expected to arrive an hour later.

Vandergrift arrived at the Makar Wharf in General Santos City at around 3 p.m.

Some  journalists, including MindaNews, were allowed to board Salvador Abcede, a fast patrol craft, to meet USS Vandergift.

Another US ship also arrived in the country—the USNS Safeguard, a rescue and salvage ship—and docked in Manila for training exercises at the Manila Bay, said Empedrad.

He said  naval exercises in Mindanao would be in the seas off Maitum and Maasim in Sarangani and in Balut Island, Sarangani town in Davao del Sur and would not be visible from the shores.

The naval exercise is within the area of responsibility of the Naval Forces Eastern Mindanao Command.

Inland activities include medical and dental civic action program and concerts by the US Navy’s 7th Fleet Band in General Santos City and Glan in Sarangani.

Four Philippine Navy ships—corvettes BRP Magat Salamat and BRP Miguel Malvar, Salvador Abcede, and coastal patrol craft BRP Teotimo Figuracion—are taking part in CARAT 2012 while the Philippine Coast Guard is deploying the BRP Pampanga.

At-sea activities include in-port training, subject matter exercise exchanges, riverine operations training, and diving and salvage exercises.

CARAT 2012 aims to enhance combined inter-operability and capability between the Philippine Navy and United States Navy as well as to test its personnel and naval assets’ operational readiness and ultimately, improve the defense capability of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

The specific objectives of CARAT 2012 are: to enhance current PN and USN and USGC and PCG capabilities in naval operations; increase the level of interoperability between the navies and coast guards of both countries in the conduct of combined naval operations focused in night time operations; test and develop the combined communications interoperability between the PN and USN; and promote situational awareness and information sharing between PN and USN forces.

On the part of the PCG, Commander Joseph Coyme, spokesperson of the PCG Contingent in CARAT 2012, said the Coast Guard exercises will cover search and rescue and emergency medical situation.

The Coast Watch Stations, which are operated by the PN and being worked out to be handled by the PCG, will have a communications exercise with the American’s P3C Orion aircraft.

Militant groups are expected to hold a caravan-protest from this city to Glan in Sarangani on July 4, in time for the commemoration of the Philippine-American Friendship Day

“The forthcoming war exercises will obviously serve the US interest. US government wants to project its military force in line with its  troops’ rebalancing towards Asia-Pacific and Middle East as declared earlier by US Pres. Barrack Obama. It is keen on using our shores to regain its military bases in the Philippines and eventually establish a Naval Base particularly in Sumbang Point, in Glan” Rev. Jonathan Ulanday, spokesperson of Patriotiko-SOCSKSARGEN, said in a statement. (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)