MANILA,  October 26, 2004
President Arroyo said yesterday the approval by the US Senate committee on appropriations of nearly double the foreign military assistance (FMS) to the Philippines for fiscal year 2005 was a vote of confidence in her administration’s implementation of reforms in the military.

The decision of the US Senate panel to increase military aid to the Philippines comes amid corruption allegations against ranking officials of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), particularly Army Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia, who has been accused of possessing unexplained wealth.

The President also cited the planned increase in US military aid to the AFP from $30 million to $55 million as a strong indication of the maturing relations between the Philippines and the US despite the strain caused by her decision to pull out the country’s 51-member peacekeeping contingent from Iraq to save the life of truck driver Angelo de la Cruz.

"I suppose the Angelo de la Cruz case, while it was a shocker to our allies in the beginning, did demonstrate that we look upon our allies as partners rather than as our masters," the President said.

De la Cruz was abducted and held hostage by Iraqi militants who threatened to behead him unless the Philippine government withdrew its peacekeepers from Iraq.

The President sought to highlight these "warming" developments in bilateral ties between the Philippines and the US during the open forum at the 30th anniversary of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Makati City.

"And, in the papers today, we saw that the US Senate increased its military assistance to the Philippines," she said, directly referring to The STAR’s headline story yesterday.

"I am very grateful for the signs of a continuing, vigorous relationship with the US and our allies and I’m glad they see this relationship in a very mature light," the President said.

Mrs. Arroyo attended the FOCAP breakfast forum with Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz, members of the diplomatic corps and several AFP officials led by Maj. Gen. Edilberto Adan and AFP spokesman Lt. Col. Daniel Lucero.

The President said the increased US military assistance, particularly for the counter-terror requirements of the AFP, indicates a healing of the bilateral ties between the Philippines and the US.

"Our allies cannot fault us for the way we have conducted our war against terrorism," she said.

The President said the US government released "peace dividends" in the form of financial assistance for development programs in Mindanao even before the Philippine government has finalized a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

"I think our partnership with our allies on the war against terrorism, regardless of whether some of the details are correct or not in the policies of our allies... has brought us a lot of capability to upgrade our own military and defense forces in winning our battles here," she said.

The President was referring in particular to the Philippine Defense Reforms drawn up in her Medium Term Development Plan, which the Department of National Defense (DND) and the AFP will implement over the next six years.

The President added that she had asked Cruz to accompany her to the FOCAP forum before proceeding to Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City for the ceremonial turnover of three of the six second-hand US military helicopters.

She announced last week the delivery of 30 used UH-1H Huey helicopters to the AFP within six months and an additional P4 billion in American military assistance over the next six years in support of the government’s reforms in the military.

Cruz formally received the three Vietnam war-vintage Huey helicopters, which were refurbished in Singapore for P3 million each and equipped with high-tech gadgets, including equipment that enable the aircraft to conduct night-flying missions.

Cruz said 12 pilots from the Philippine Air Force have been trained to use the Huey helicopters, which will be used as evacuation transport for wounded soldiers.

He also explained the basic features of the Joint RP-US Defense Assessments made last year, as well as recommendations from the defunct Feliciano Fact-Finding Commission that looked into the July 27, 2003 mutiny in Makati City.

To prevent misuse of US military aid to the Philippines, a professionalized and centralized acquisition system will be created under the AFP’s J-6 system - the comptrollership held by Garcia for almost three years.

Cruz said incoming AFP chief Lt. Gen. Efren Abu has already instituted his own reforms in the Philippine Army by delegating J-6 functions to three officials "to institute checks and balances."

"If we implement the Philippine Defense Reform Program in all its aspects, I think we will be able to optimize funds that we are able to receive and we are able to make sure that the funds really go where they are meant," Cruz said.

He added that the DND and AFP have invited the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and the Philippine Bar Association to serve as anti-graft watchdogs to witness their open public bidding for the procurement of DND-AFP supplies and equipment.

"It is going to be a very transparent procedure, so that we are able to optimize all the funds that we receive to spend (them) on this upgrade of the AFP over our medium-term program of six years," he said.

The delivery of the helicopters is part of the pledge made by US President George W. Bush that the US would donate 30 UH-1H helicopters to the Philippines. Bush made this pledge during Mrs. Arroyo’s state visit to Washington in May 2003.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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