MANILA, OCTOBER 14, 2003  (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva  - There won’t be any wining, but the dining will go on as planned.

United States President George W. Bush will skip the wine at the state dinner President Arroyo will host for him at Malacañang Palace on Saturday.

Bush’s aides said the US president requested that his beverage of choice, 7-Up, be served instead of wine, since he does not drink alcohol.

"President Bush doesn’t drink (and) his aides asked that he be given 7-Up while he is here," Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye told reporters.

However, "the uncola" is the only definite item on the menu, as it has yet to be finalized for the state banquet the President is hosting for Bush, US First Lady Laura Bush and their official delegation for the eight-hour state visit of the US leader.

"The menu for the state banquet at the Ceremonial Hall is set to be approved anytime. The menu will predominantly be (composed of) seafood (dishes)," Bunye said, adding that Bush’s aides "gave no dietary requirement."

He also took strong exception to criticisms of allegedly "excessive" expenses for the Bush visit, which the Palace organizers have billed as a "barrio fiesta" event.

"We would like to debunk reports of alleged excessive expenses related to President Bush’s visit," he said. "The idea of holding a ‘barrio fiesta’ type of cocktails was made to give our visitors a feel of the traditional Filipino warmth and hospitality. We would like them to see how fiestas are held here."

"There will be a ‘barrio fiesta’ theme for the visit, complete with bamboo nipa huts on the Palace grounds, the very Filipino puto bumbong and bibingka (two varieties of rice cakes), to be served during the cocktails," Bunye said.

World-renowned Filipino entertainers, including Miss Saigon headliner, Broadway star and Tony award-winner Lea Salonga, the Philharmonic Strings and the Pangkat Kawayan will entertain Bush and his official party at the state banquet.

Bunye could not, however, say exactly how much the state banquet for Bush will cost the government.

He defended the ongoing refurbishing and repainting of the Palace’s Kalayaan Hall, saying it "was not exactly timed" for the Bush visit as "part of the annual repainting, and the cost is included in the maintenance and operating expense of the engineering department of Malacañang. In short, there is no additional cost to this, since this is already included in the annual repainting expense."

He said there were no new purchases of furniture or other items to spice up the Palace interior or grounds — not even the new plants that have begun sprouting all over the Palace gardens. "These plants were borrowed from the (Luneta) Orchidarium," he said. The plants "will be returned after the (state) visit." The floral arrangements for the state banquet will be done by Malacañang’s in-house florists, but these floral arrangements will be created with a dignified elegance fit for any visiting head of state.

Bunye also said there is no possibility that Bush’s visit to Manila may exceed the set eight hours now that escaped Indonesian bomber and terrorist Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi has been neutralized.

Al-Ghozi was the most senior member of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist group to be arrested. He escaped on July 14 from the headquarters of the Philippine National Police in Camp Crame, Quezon City with two suspected members and bomb experts of the Abu Sayyaf bandit group.

The death of Al-Ghozi during a joint military and police operation late Sunday night in North Cotabato will probably not affect the schedule of activities for Bush’s state visit, Bunye said. "By this time, the schedules of (Bush and President Arroyo) have been set."

Even with Al-Ghozi’s death, Bunye said, the Philippine government will not let its guard down against possible retaliatory terrorist attacks.

"Al-Ghozi was notorious among terrorists," Bunye said. "His death, I think, can lessen the level of threat, but (the) threat will always remain because (the JI) is wide and they can strike anywhere."

"Although Al-Ghozi was killed, we have not reduced our alert level," he added.

He said he does not know the exact reason why the Bush visit will only last eight hours, but said "we know one factor is the next (item on the) schedule of President Bush is the conference in Bangkok, Thailand for APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation)."

Mrs. Arroyo will also fly to Bangkok to attend the APEC meet on Sunday.

Reacting to speculations that Bush may openly support Mrs. Arroyo’s bid for the presidency in the 2004 elections, Bunye said Bush would not make a campaign pitch for the President.

"In the first place, we do not expect our guests would make such political act," he said. "I think our President believes she has the experience and knowledge to know how to push our country. She doesn’t need any guidance from any visitor, but the President is looking at national interest."

Like Mrs. Arroyo, Bush is also running for president, though he is a reelectionist.

Local politics, Bunye said, is not the usual topic of discussion during state visits. "We’re looking at this visit as a plus point as far as strategic (RP-US) relations are concerned... It will be a reaffirmation of commitments (between) both our countries (for) our security, economy, trade and socio-economic ties."

Ahead of the Bush visit, the Palace announced the donation by the US government of $1 million worth of modern hospital equipment to the Veterans Medical Memorial Hospital (VMMC) and the increased financial assistance for the Mindanao peace process extended by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

The Philippines has also been formally declared a major non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) ally of the US.

In a related development, Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople welcomed the call of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) for the United Nations to be given a bigger role in bringing Iraq back to self-rule.

In a statement from Putrajaya, Malaysia, where he is attending the ministerial meeting that will pave the way for the 10th Session of the Islamic Summit Conference, Ople welcomed the OIC’s decision to allow the governing council of Iraq to attend the summit.

"The Philippines supports the call for a more central role for the UN in Iraq and for the eventual full return of the country to its people," Ople said. The Philippines was a staunch supporter of the United States’ decision to lead a coalition to war in Iraq to oust dictator Saddam Hussein.

Ople said the invitation from Malaysia for Mrs. arroyo to attend the OIC summit is "unprecedented and represents the increasing importance that countries of the OIC give to our own efforts to bring peace and development to the southern Philippines." Mindanao, which has been riven by 30 years of Muslim secessionist rebellion, is home to a majority of the country’s Muslim populace.

"The OIC has a vital role to play in international peace, stability and development," Ople said as he welcomed the call of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for the OIC to be restructured to allow for enlightened moderation and closer cooperation among Muslim states in combating extremism and terrorism.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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