US: Phl government prepared to stop terror attacks

05/06/11 - MANILA, Philippines - United States Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. is confident that the Philippines is capable of dealing with possible retaliatory attacks from local terrorists sympathetic to slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

“We have full confidence in President Aquino and his national security team. We know that they work every day to protect every one who lives here, most importantly the Filipino people but also those of us who are guests in this country, and we know that they have been vigilant over the last few days, not only at our embassy but also the airports and other ports,” Thomas told reporters yesterday at the House of Representatives.

The US ambassador was at the House for the completion ceremony for the 11th batch of the Congressional Internship Program for Young Mindanao Leaders, a project of the US Agency for International Development.

He said the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001 also killed several Filipinos.

National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia earlier said embassies of countries that support the US global war on terror are likely targets of retaliatory attacks by sympathizers of bin Laden. He said the Philippine National Police has deployed additional security personnel to these embassies.

“The government has nonetheless deemed it prudent to upgrade security for critical infrastructure and other places deemed likely targets of a terrorist attack,” Garcia said, as he assured the public that there is no “immediate threat in Metro Manila.” Commandos belonging to the elite US Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in a daring raid in his hideout in Pakistan last May 1.

Tighter security

American troops in Mindanao have tightened security in the face of possible retaliatory attacks from bin Laden’s sympathizers.

“Their security, their force protection program is so tight,” said Lt. Col. Randolf Cabangbang, spokesman of Western Mindanao Command, referring to the US military personnel’s security preparations following the killing of the al-Qaeda leader.

The US forces – numbering around 600 – were part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) based in Zamboanga City and headed by US Navy Capt. Robert Gusentine.

Despite the rigid security measures, US military personnel continue to train their Filipino counterparts in anti-terror operations, according to Cabangbang.

The US forces also help the Philippine military in carrying out development projects in areas where the Abu Sayyaf and other militant groups operate.

Four US servicemen have died in terror attacks since the beginning of the Balikatan exercises in 2002.

On Oct. 2, 2002, two US Special Forces members were killed when a motorcycle bomb exploded near a restaurant outside Camp Enrile training base in Barangay Malagutay in Zamboanga City. Dozens of civilians were also wounded in the attack believed staged by the Abu Sayyaf.

Two more US soldiers and a Filipino Marine were killed by a roadside bomb also in October seven years later in Barangay Kagay, Indanan town, Sulu.

The Abu Sayyaf and the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) were blamed for the attacks.

The price of closeness

For Sen. Miriam Santiago, being a target of terrorist attack is a price the Philippines may have to consider for its close relations with the US.

Santiago said that the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and the Philippines shows both the benefits and the downside of being close with a superpower like the US.

“We are looked upon in the world community as a bastion or a forward operating base of the United States,” Santiago said.

“That is to say we have allowed them to come here with their military personnel and equipment because they are in effect an advance party so that when necessary, the full force of the American military can occupy Philippine territory, these forward operating bases are ready to receive them,” she added.

Santiago is pushing for the termination of the VFA, citing its supposed flaws and failures.

Possible retaliatory attacks by terrorist organizations linked to al-Qaeda and its slain leader bin Laden have become a serious concern for nations allied with the US.

Santiago said that such a relationship, reinforced by the VFA, would make the Philippines a prime target of terrorist organizations.

“Naturally, in a strategic campaign against America, the Philippines, particularly in Mindanao, will be one of the prime targets,” Santiago said.

“That is the biggest handicap inflicted by the VFA,” she added.

In earlier statements, Santiago noted that the “fatal flaw” of the VFA is its failure to specify the period of stay of the visiting forces and to define what activities they are allowed to engage in while in Philippine territory.

“It calls itself a visiting agreement, but it has been in force for some 10 years. Its flaws and failures warrant its termination,” Santiago said.

Santiago has filed a resolution calling for the termination of the VFA.

The resolution directs the Secretary of Foreign Affairs to give a notice of termination to the US government.

Santiago argued that the VFA, just like any other law of the land, can be terminated by Congress unilaterally through a joint resolution.

“The Executive’s role is to give notice of termination to the United States, although the decision itself is one for Congress to make,” she added.

She said that under the VFA, the “agreement shall remain in force until the expiration of 180 days from the date on which either party gives the other party notice in writing that it desires to terminate the agreement.”

“I’ve already said that in my view it is unconstitutional. We’ll have to be able to convince the President to give notice to the other party pursuant to the terms of the VFA, so that we can terminate it. All we have to do is to give them notice, I think six months in advance,” Santiago said.

MalacaƱang, for its part, has opted for a review of the VFA with the intention of renegotiating the terms of the agreement in order to address the concerns over its supposed flaws.

In an earlier hearing on the VFA at the Senate, officials of the executive branch stressed the importance of the VFA to the country’s interest as it facilitates sharing of military and technical expertise. It is also through the VFA that the US provides much needed military equipment to the Philippines, officials said.

“However, it has very dire consequences for our country. The US will definitely, let’s say, rethink its priorities in giving away surplus equipment and military hardware to developing countries like us and giving military assistance and grants to its allies,” Santiago said.

“In other words, if we terminate VFA, we get cut off from American largesse. Grants and aids… everything. That’s very difficult,” she added.

Prelates’ concern

While the death of bin Laden may have been a setback for terrorists, it might also trigger more and deadlier terror attacks, according to some Roman Catholic bishops.

Basilan Bishop Martin Jumoad said Mindanao is certainly prone to attacks since high-profile terrorists are known to be staying in the region.

“Mindanao areas are very vulnerable to terrorist activities because these places are their hideouts,” he said.

“The threats are always present and our worry is it could be exacerbated with the death of Osama bin Laden,” he said. “We are really worried of the impending retaliation.”

“Terror threats in Mindanao are real. Bin Laden and the Jemaah Islamiyah have strong supporters based in Mindanao. They have done terrorism before and they can possibly do them again,” Cotabato Auxiliary Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo said.

“There is really a possibility (for retaliatory attacks) with the presence of al-Qaeda here in Mindanao,” Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos said.

Jumoad said that the military should be placed on full alert considering the possibility of retaliatory strikes even on civilian targets.

He also asked the faithful to cooperate with the authorities.

“We call on everyone’s cooperation. We are all vulnerable for terrorism. We need to pray to defeat evil,” Bagaforo added.

Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-Public Affairs Committee chairman Kalookan Bishop Deogracias Iniguez said that with the possible retaliation by bin Laden’s followers, security at churches especially during Masses should be beefed up.

“There should be security because they are afraid of some negative reaction,” he said.

“The public should also be observant. We should warn our ushers and usherettes to keep their eyes open and if someone sees a bag unattended, they should inform the authorities immediately,” Iniguez added. (philstar)

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