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Rodrigo Duterte

US, Philippine special forces to hold joint war drills

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 November, 2016, 2:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 November, 2016, 2:00am

US and Philippine special forces will begin annual combat exercises on Wednesday in a sign such joint drills are continuing despite vocal opposition by the Philippine president.

The US military says that so far there’s been no reduction in cooperation with the Philippines, a longstanding US ally, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s threats to do so and his expressed desire to expand security ties with China and Russia.

But in a sign of a possible restriction, Philippine army spokesman Colonel Benjamin Hao said Tuesday both the US and the Philippines have agreed to forego live-fire drills in the field during the month-long Balance Piston exercises which will take place in the western province of Palawan.

He said about 40 elite Filipino troops are taking part but wouldn’t say how many Americans. He didn’t give a reason for dropping the live-fire manoeuvres.

The Philippine defence department has said Duterte wants such assault drills to be discontinued.

In Washington, Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of US forces in the Pacific, said Tuesday that there’s been no change so far in US-Philippine military cooperation.

He said US special forces are still advising the Philippines in counter-terrorism in the country’s south, US surveillance aircraft have continued rotational deployments at Clark Air Base, and plans for enhanced defence cooperation agreed by the previous Philippine administration remain on track.

“There are five Philippines bases that they have agreed to allow us to use. That hasn’t changed so far and I have no reason to believe that will change. I will know more next week,” Harris told reporters.

Next Tuesday, Harris said he will meet in the Philippines with the chief of staff of its armed forces, General Ricardo Visaya, to discuss the schedule for military exercises in the coming two years. Harris said there could be a “re-scoping” of some of the big exercises in 2017.

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Duterte has been antagonistic toward the US for its criticism of his deadly anti-drug crackdown. He has publicly declared that he would halt all joint combat exercises with the Americans, but later walked back on the threat, sparking uncertainty among Philippine and US officials.

Philippine defence officials said last week that Duterte agreed to allow a smaller number of exercises after they explained to him the benefits to the Philippines, including its capability to respond to natural disasters.

Live-fire manoeuvres are traditionally one of the highlights of the Balance Piston exercise. Hao said marksmanship events will proceed but will be confined to a camp. The drills will also include mock sea interdictions, care for combat casualties and “combat” swimming drills, he said.

“This is an annual training event to test the basic warfighting skills of our soldiers and to foster an improved relationship of our armed forces,” Hao told reporters.