MANILA, April 14, 2005
(STAR) By Aurea Calica  -  A day after Manila protested an American diplomatís comments that Mindanao risked becoming the next Afghanistan, President Arroyo said the alliance between the US and the Philippines remains strong.

"The strategic (Philippines-US) alliance is as strong as ever in the campaign against terrorism and in vital areas of assistance to fight poverty," Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said in a statement.

On Tuesday, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) delivered a diplomatic note to US Embassy Chargť dí Affaires Joseph Mussomeli after he told Australian television that Mindanao could find itself in an "Afghanistan situation" and become a "mecca" for terrorism.

The United States is Manilaís main military aid donor and top foreign investor.

The Philippines, on the other hand, is scheduled to begin peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Malaysia next week. The 12,000-member MILF has been waging a separatist rebellion for an independent Islamic state in Mindanao since 1978 but opened preliminary peace talks with the government in 2003.

"The Afghanistan statement is a closed book insofar as we are concerned," Bunye said. "The Philippine government has stated its case and has done the proper sanctions. We hope this unfortunate incident is not repeated."

Yesterday, Mussomeli said bilateral ties between the US and the Philippines "are as strong as ever, and will get even better in the future."

"(The Philippines and the US) share a lot of common interests and objectives, from fighting terrorism to combating poverty to reforming the armed forces to strengthening the rule of law. The list goes on and on. We will always remain steadfast allies," Mussomeli told The STAR.

He said the speed by which the controversy was subsiding was "evidence of just how good and solid the underlying relationship is."

Mussomeli later explained in a radio interview that his statements branding Mindanao as an emerging "mecca" of terrorists were made out of concern for the peace and order problems in the region.

In a separate interview, Mussomeli admitted his statements caused "this diplomatic flap."

"Thereís always a silver lining to these things. I guess the silver lining in this case is that everybody is now thinking and focused and talking about the situation in Mindanao," Mussomeli said in an interview over dzBB radio. "And thatís a good thing because my concern was that over time, people may be distracted and will be distracted," he said.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo, for his part, declined to comment on the issue. "That was already covered very well and by a note verbale when we called that certain embassy official. We consider this episode a closed book," he said.

At a news conference, Romulo clearly showed his displeasure with Mussomeli, referring to him repeatedly as "that certain US Embassy official."

On the other hand, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said there is no need to demand an apology from Mussomeli, pointing out the US diplomat had already clarified that he was quoted out of context.

"Maybe itís enough that the US authorities know our displeasure considering that we have a very good relationship with the US," Ermita said.

"We can leave it at that, the most important is we called their attention (to the fact) that we are not really insensitive to this," he added.

Ermita said the US is initiating development projects in Mindanao and training the Philippine military in curbing terrorism. "We should focus on the positive aspect... We wish that we can put this behind us," he said.

Ermita said the DFA would take no other action against Mussomeli following the issuance of the diplomatic note. After receiving the note verbale last Tuesday, Mussomeli commented: "There is nothing to apologize (for)." He said Washington likewise saw no need to issue a formal reply.

Mussomeliís statements elicited adverse reactions from officials, lawmakers, the military and even the MILF. The MILF, through its spokesman Eid Kabalu, said Mussomeliís statements were "exaggerated" and "have no basis at all."

The military, through Armed Forces Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Alberto Braganza, said they are doing their best to reduce fears that Mindanao is becoming a "mecca" of terrorists.

Braganza said the current military campaign had already apprehended ranking terror leaders, including some from the regional terror network Jemaah Islamiyah. Local officials in the region led by Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte belied Mussomeliís claims by saying the situation in Mindanao is under control.

He said Mussomeliís statements on Mindanao becoming the next Afghanistan "are too sweeping."

Lawmakers from Mindanao led by Basilan Rep. Gerry Salapuddin and Zamboanga del Sur Rep. Isidoro Real also rebuked Mussomeli for his statements.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. who also hails from Mindanao, said Mussomeliís statements are an attempt by the US government to make Southern Philippines the next battleground for its global war on terror.

"If they start to compare the situation of Mindanao to that of Afghanistan or Iraq, there is no other conclusion that we can draw except that they want us to convert the island of Mindanao into a battlefield," Pimentel said yesterday.

Although Mussomeli issued a clarification, Pimentel said the US diplomat had not retracted his criticism that the Philippine government is not doing enough to stop terrorism.

Sen. Richard Gordon meanwhile downplayed the tempest over Mussomeliís comments and called for sobriety.

"We Filipinos should not panic just because Mussomeli made such a remark," Gordon said.

"His statement does not mean that Mindanao is in flames. Big deal. Just because he is a US diplomat... does not make his deliberations a gospel truth," he said. ó With Pia Lee-Brago, Christina Mendez, Nestor Etolle, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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