BALIKATAN DEAL WRAPPED UP IN A MONTH

Manila, March 28, 2003 -- A top military official said it will hold the
RP-US joint Balikatan 03-1 with a different terms of reference (TOR) based
on the people's sentiments.

The military official said the forthcoming Balikatan, would still be likely
held in Mindanao and has not discounted the place of Sulu which was
originally chosen as the site of the military exercise.

Armed Forces Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya who arrived last
week from Washington D after a meeting with defense officials on its
ongoing security assistance with the Philippine government said the
Balikatan was part of the discussion.

Barring any hitches, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes hinted yesterday that
the RP-US Balikatan exercises 03-01 will push through by next month. Reyes
said negotiations are underway for the conduct of the RP and the second
batch of US soldiers. He assured the public that the conduct of the
military exercises between the Philippines and the United States will be
made "within the framework of the Philippine Constitution and sensitive to
the local situation."

Reyes said the exercises also aims to improve the capacity of the Armed
Forces' personnel to fight international and local terrorists, at par with
international standards. He said part of the talks between US and Filipino
counterparts will include the study of various exercise areas.

"We would have a multi-agency discussion, but we must be clear first on the
policy level, when we have come out with the policy, that is the time when
the operational aspect comes in," Reyes said. "It is not going to be a
quick process."

Reyes did not say if the island of Sulu is still being eyed as the primary
area for the exercises, but he said it is "being considered."

American soldiers will not be allowed to be directly involved in the
operations, although Reyes said "the right to self-defense will always be
there."

The defense secretary added that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)
will be leading the pack in terms of operations while the US forces will
just be given a supporting role. They will be engaged in
intelligence-gathering and in the use of communication equipment. Reyes
added, "There has to be clarity of what conditions we are taking. We have
to spell out the mode of engagement."

In an interview with a select group of reporters, Reyes said that the
conduct of the RP-US Balikatan will likely push through despite mounting
opposition from several organizations. (By Christina Mendez, Star)


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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