Sunday, May 15, 2011

No backlash seen from carrier tour

By Delon Porcalla with Alexis Romero
The Philippine Star, Monday, May 16, 2011

MANILA, Philippines - President Aquino’s visit to a US aircraft carrier was just part of the country’s defense cooperation with the Americans and would not spark a backlash from extremist groups sympathetic to slain terror leader Osama bin Laden, according to Malacañang.

Secretary Ricky Carandang of the Presidential Communications Strategic Planning and Development Office said the tour that took about four hours was upon the invitation of US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr.

“No, I don’t think there’s gonna be a backlash. I don’t think it will do that sort (agitate local terrorists). We did not send any message, it (the tour) was of defense cooperation (with the US). It’s just routine,” Carandang said yesterday.

Carandang stressed the President’s tour of the USS Carl Vinson was part of the normal defense cooperation with the US.

“And we are happy to see them here. This is part of our obligation to help the US (as its defense partner). The soldiers will get some downtime because they have been at sea for over 100 days,” he added.

The Carl Vinson brought bin Laden’s remains to the North Arabian Sea after he was killed during a raid by US Navy SEALs on his Pakistani hideout earlier this month.

Following bin Laden’s death, Philippine authorities had placed security forces on high alert for possible sympathy attacks by bin Laden’s followers in the Philippines.

Militant groups said Aquino’s visit to the US warship sends a wrong message in regard to the issue on the presence of US troops in the Philippines.

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) also denounced the visit of the US carrier, calling it a “shameless display of master-puppet relationship.”

“It would appear that Aquino was summoned by the US government, which had him flown to the US carrier, bypassing standard diplomatic procedures,” the CPP said in a statement.

While they were aware that Carl Vinson indeed carried the remains of bin Laden when the US government decided to bury it at sea, Carandang said the issue was not discussed at all during the tour.

“Honestly, nobody mentioned it. We were aware that there had been media reports. There had been no confirmation from the US authorities. We didn’t turn it into an issue. We didn’t ask it. We were just touring the ship,” he said.

Carandang said he was personally aware that the US aircraft carrier served as a “hearse” of the remains of bin Laden as he read it in the newspapers, but he just didn’t see the need to ask the US naval officers.

“I simply would not mention that. And they were not talking about it and it seems all of us there were in the same thing, so there was no talk about it, and we didn’t even bother to mention it.”

He said it would be embarrassing to ask their US hosts about how bin Laden’s remains were buried at sea.

“It was like a courtesy call. The President was invited to go there. Then he visited the ship. There are Filipinos there on the ship, maybe less than 100,” Carandang narrated.

He said Aquino addressed the Fil-Am troops and had a chat with them over lunch along with their American superiors.

Carandang said no bilateral issues were discussed during the tour since only naval officers were around.

“No specifics. The President just reaffirmed longstanding ties with US, it’s really just that. This was not the occasion for any substantial discussion. First of all no one from US State Department, just naval officers. So, no occasion for discussion on our bilateral ties.”

Carandang said the President and his party that included members of the Cabinet were left impressed.

“Ambassador Thomas thought it would be nice to see an aircraft carrier. It turns out we have Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and it was probably the first time for him to see an aircraft carrier. For the rest of us, it was a new experience,” he said.

Carandang said they saw how the jets take off and land in an aircraft carrier.

“It’s very impressive because their fighter jets are catapulted from the carrier because the runway is too short, so the jet would have to be catapulted,” he said.

“So, its very interesting to see. You see it in the movies, it’s different when you see and actually experience it. We were all very impressed by the trip to the aircraft carrier,” he said.

Boosting tourism

The military, for its part, expressed confidence that Aquino’s visit to the US aircraft carrier

would not trigger retaliatory attacks.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Commodore Miguel Rodriguez said security forces remain vigilant to remove any opportunity for terrorists to commit atrocities.

“I don’t think that (retaliatory attacks) will happen. Terrorists can strike if there is opportunity whether the USS Carl Vinson is here or not. But we are on alert,” Rodriguez said over radio dzBB.

Rodriguez said the crew of Carl Vinson and the Philippine Navy had adequate security measures to foil any plans by terrorists to sow disorder.

aWe have security measures to protect our visitors so retaliatory attacks would be remote,W Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez also clarified that the visit of the nuclear-powered US ship does not mean that a terrorist threat is imminent.

There is no threat. The job of the Armed Forces is to always prepare in times of contingency. We should not let our guard down. Our country should have a good defense posture,T he said.

What we do is make sure that there is no opportunity to stage attacks.

Rodriguez said the visit will even boost tourism and allow US Navy personnel to explore the country s tourist spots.

The military also announced the purchase of a Hamilton-class cutter from the US Coast Guard that would be deployed to guard the coastal areas and marine assets around Sulu and Palawan.

AFP public affairs chief Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr. said the vessel will secure the oil exploration projects in these areas.

sThe vessel is projected to be employed for the security of oil platforms and oil explorations activities in Palawan and Sulu Sea,T Burgos said in a statement.

Burgos said the Department of Energy will fund the costs involved in the purchase of the ship since it will be used to protect existing exploration projects.

He said the transfer cost is pegged at P450 million while the operational cost for two years is estimated at P120 million.

We will continue to modernize your Armed Forces. The addition of the vessel to the NavyWs inventory will definitely boost our capability to protect our Exclusive Economic Zone and improve our border patrol capability,s AFP chief Gen. Eduardo Oban Jr. said.

The Hamilton-class cutter was formally transferred by the US Coast Guard to Philippine officials last Friday.

The certificate of transfer was signed by Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia Jr. and US Coastguard Pacific Area and Defense Force West Commander Vice Admiral Manson Brown in Alameda, California.

The cutter is expected to arrive to Manila in September.

The vessel, which was acquired through the US government’s Foreign Military Sales program, was renamed BRP Gregorio del Pilar in line with the Navyis tradition of naming ships after historical figures.

A cutter is a high-speed vessel that can cut through waves. The newly commissioned vessel is the first Hamilton-class cutter in the Navyss inventory. Hamilton-class ships have dual diesel and gas turbine engines that give them a top speed of 29 knots and can remain at sea without refueling for 45 days.

The US Coast Guard cutter, which is about 380 feet long, is now the Navyss largest ship. It is larger than the Navyss previous largest surface combatant BRP Rajah Humabon, which is 308 feet long.

Navy chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said that close to 100 Navy personnel had been sent to California to undergo training on operating the ship.

The crew of the ship has been on training since February and will complete the course in July.

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