Manila, Feb. 26, 2003 -- Calls for the cancellation of the Balikatan 03-1 training exercises in Sulu have mounted in the Senate with lawmakers asking President Arroyo to spare herself and her government from being charged with an unconstitutional act.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said there is still time for the President to "put her foot down on this Balikatan plan drawn up by Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes in tandem with the US military establishment."

He said Reyes would also be violating the Visiting Forces Agreement if the war exercises push through.

The VFA prohibits the holding of Balikatan exercises in war areas. Pimentel said Sulu is one such place.

"His (Reyes) apparent complicity in the decision to bring US troops to Sulu on combat mission and expose them and our troops and the people of Sulu to violent confrontations would likewise be violative of the Constitution as no foreign troops should be allowed to fight wars of any kind within the territory of the Republic," Pimentel said.

He added: "Sulu will be a tough nut to crack. Sulu is not Basilan."

"Secretary Reyes should be held responsible for an unexpected scenario of mayhem and blood that is bound to take place in Sulu for the simple reason that US troops going into Sulu even if accompanied by our own soldiers would be considered an invading force that would be repelled by the people of Sulu," he also said.

The deployment of US troops, Pimentel added, could be part of a plan by the US government to prolong their military presence and make the Philippines a staging ground for countering Islamic fundamentalism in Southeast Asia.

Pimentel said that with such a plan "it would be Vietnam reincarnated in Sulu."

Sen. Francis Pangilinan called for the suspension of the war exercises.

"It (Balikatan exercises) sends the wrong signal given the ongoing worldwide opposition to war," he said.

"This does not serve Philippine interests. Those who oppose war against Iraq should also oppose the on going war exercises in Jolo. Given the tension in the Middle East, it promotes US war interests primarily," he said.

Sen. Manuel Villar had questioned the timing of the exercises, saying the presence of US troops in an area populated by Muslim communities would heighten the tension between the US and Filipino Muslims.

"The government should consider the growing anti-US sentiment worldwide with its pronounced war against the government of Saddam Hussein," Villar said. (By JP LOPEZ, Malaya)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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