No Further Obstacle Seen to RP-US Military Exercises

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Defense Secretary Angelo T. Reyes expressed yesterday he foresees no more major obstacle to the conduct of the joint RP-US military exercises and voiced confidence that the "Terms of Reference" for the exercises - Balikatan 02-1 - will be agreed upon by the Philippine and United States governments within the next three days.

In an interview at the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) General Headquarters in Quezon City where he attended a command conference with top military officials, Reyes said the Philippine government has included an annex in the Balikatan 02-1 Terms of Reference to include the preservation of the environment of selected exercise venues.

The exercise is slated to be held in areas of Zamboanga City and Basilan, where AFP elements are now conducting rescue operations for three hostages still held by the Abu Sayyaf, including two American missionaries. "We (in the Philippine government) are expecting that once the terms of referrence are already out, they will be acceptable to everyone," Reyes said.

Military officials said US Charge d'Affaires Robert Fitts will represent US State Secretary Colin Powell in signing the Terms of Reference although there has been no confirmation if Vice President and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teofisto Guingona will sign on behalf of the Philippine government.

Reyes also said there was no major revisions on the term "command authority" in the proposed terms of reference which was the subject of debate among various sectors.

He explained that the new draft only emphasized the definition in order to determine who will be in command during the conduct of field training exercises.

On the issue of constitutionality of the holding of Balikatan exercises in Abu Sayyaf-threatened areas in Basilan raised before the Supreme Court, Reyes said he has not yet submitted his reply to the High Tribunal in connection with the petition for certiorari filed by former Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) official Arthur Lim.

"The 10 days given to me by the Supreme Court have not yet lapsed. I am confident that I will be able to address the issue accordingly, to defend the constitutionality of the Balikatan exercises," the defense chief added.

Reyes had earlier welcomed the filing of the petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court, stressing that it will be a good opportunity to inform the citizenry of the Balikatan's constitutionality.

After the forging of the Balikatan 02-1 Terms of Reference, both participating armed forces will proceed to the second phase of the military maneuvers which will now involve actual field training deployment.

Former Filipinos

ZAMBOANGA CITY (AP) - A number of former Filipinos - now US soldiers - said Monday they will use familiarity with the Philippines to help their former homeland wipe out Muslim extremist rebels.

The US citizens - former Filipinos - are among 660 US soldiers joining a training exercise with Philippine troops designed to destroy Abu Sayyaf rebels holding an American couple and a Filipino nurse hostage in the impoverished southern island of Basilan.

"I can help bridge the relationship and I'm doing that," said US Air Force Sgt. Albin Hinahon, who migrated to the United States as a child but still speaks the Philippine language.

While some hesitantly expressed their feelings, others spoke poignantly about returning home to an Asian country still stuck in poverty and security woes.

"It's sad, it's sad, but what can we do? The only way to do it is to fix the problem I guess," said US Army Sgt. Noel Villegas from Tacoma, Washington.

Villegas said he remembered when he emerged from a military aircraft that brought him to Zamboanga recently and saw the houses outside the airport that gave him a sense of the poverty gripping Filipinos.

Villegas belongs to a US Army Special Forces unit and is helping set up modern military communications system in the southern Philippines and acquaint Filipino troops with new equipment. …