[PHOTO AT LEFT - ON THE SIDELINES: President Arroyo talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) during a dialogue with the APEC Business Advisory Council in Busan, South Korea, site of the APEC annual leaders’ summit.]

BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA, November 19, 2005 (STAR) By Paolo Romero (via PLDT) The Philippines again took center stage in the global fight against terrorism at the start of the two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Summit here yesterday.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo said during the APEC ministers’ meeting that just before the start of the summit, officials of the 21 APEC member-economies "only had special words for the Philippines, particularly on counterterrorism."

He cited the ministers of Spain, Indonesia, Chile and the United States as among those who congratulated the Philippine delegation "for a job well done" and for the country’s efforts against global terrorism.

APEC Counter-Terrorism Task Force (APEC CTTF) chairman Benjamin Defensor said delegations from the member-economies were gratified that the task force was able to achieve so much in just a year.

"We were surprised that the APEC member-economies lauded the Philippines openly, and the APEC CTTF in particular," Defensor, a former Armed Forces chief, said.

"This is an achievement not only of the task force but of the Philippines that we should all be proud of," he added.

President Arroyo, for her part, said the Philippines would continue its fight against local terrorist groups and strengthen regional cooperation to prevent terror attacks. She pointed out that government troops had already decimated the ranks of the Abu Sayyaf group in Mindanao.

"At home, we continue to press our offensive against the remnants of the ragtag Abu Sayyaf even as we sustain our war against terrorism through intensified and well-coordinated intelligence gathering to preempt terror attacks," Mrs. Arroyo said in a speech at the prestigious Kyung Sung University where she was conferred an honorary doctorate degree on laws.

Defensor, who was named head of the APEC CTTF last February and will serve for two years, said the Philippines is one of the most cost-effective in terms of fighting terrorism.

He said the estimated cost of neutralizing one terrorist in the country is only $2,000.

"When they (APEC leaders) ask me how we do it in a relatively inexpensive manner, I tell them that we have more than 20 years’ experience fighting terrorists," Defensor said.

Romulo said the positive statements at the APEC meet came as the Philippines chaired the United Nations committee on counterterrorism.

Defensor said the APEC also commended the CTTF for its major project, a cross-analysis of Counter Terrorism Action Plans (CTAPs) of all member-economies to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each.

The cross-analysis project, he said, paved the way for a capacity-building initiative by APEC this year where developed countries with complete CTAPs would assist others with less capability.

The project also identified areas of cooperation in fighting terrorism among APEC members, he said.

APEC members have also agreed to undertake a vulnerability assessment of airports against Man-Portable Air Defense Systems and to abide by the guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Code of Conduct on radioactive materials.

 ‘Bright Christmas’

Mrs. Arroyo, also while in South Korea, projected a bright Christmas this year for Filipinos, owing to positive developments in the markets and improving economic indicators.

In her speech, the President maintained that the Philippines is on the verge of economic takeoff because of the fiscal reform measures she implemented this year.

"Tamed inflation, positive balance of payments, all-time-high dollar reserves, the stream of capital inflows and the rollback on fuel prices — all project a better Christmas for Filipinos," she said.

The Arroyo administration implemented a fiscal program, which included the imposition of the 12-percent expanded value-added tax next year, to wipe out the deficit and balance the budget by 2009.

The President ticked off positive developments, including "the taming of the budgetary deficit brought about by the increase in revenue collections, the surging Philippine peso now considered as the ‘darling currency’ of Asia — if not the world — and the robust stock exchange now the second best performing in the region next only to Korea."

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye meanwhile attributed the increased revenue collections to "good governance grounded on administrative reforms and fair tax measures."

"Bringing down the deficit means bringing up confidence, generating more investments and jobs, cutting down on our debt payments, and opening up more resources for social amelioration and key infrastructure," he said.

In a related development, the Philippine and South Korean governments are expected to seal an agreement for the completion of the $126.76-million South Rail project when President Roh Moo-Hyun makes this three-day state visit to the country next month.

Foreign Secretary Romulo and Vice Consul to Seoul Juan Dayang said the South Korean government is allocating about $70 million for the completion of the project, which runs from Caloocan City to Calamba, Laguna.

Mrs. Arroyo said she is "especially grateful that Korea will finance the modernization of the train system across Metro Manila."

Philippine National Railways (PNR) general manager Jose Sarasola said the two governments are pushing through with the formal signing of an agreement despite lingering controversies hounding the North Rail project.

"This project is totally aboveboard. This is part of the government’s effort to interconnect north to south and decongest traffic in Metro Manila. We are pushing through with this next month," he said.

Sarasola said a memorandum of agreement between the two governments is expected to be signed early next month as part of Roh’s state visit to the country, set on Dec. 14 to 16.

"This is already the second phase of the project. The first phase has already been underway and we are now preparing for the second phase, which will eventually be signed next month," he said.

The South Railway rehabilitation and reconstruction project, estimated to cost a total of P6.6 billion, seeks to repair, improve and strengthen the PNR railways system from Caloocan to Calamba for the next two years.

It is being funded by the Korean Export Import Bank through the Economic Development Fund, a soft loan package of the South Korean government, which is one of the country’s top donors of official development assistance.

The first phase of the project, estimated at $50 million, seeks to repair and improve the PNR railway system from Caloocan to Alabang and will be operational before the end of this year.

The second phase, which covers the Alabang-Calamba section, includes the improvement of 27.5 kilometers of track; road-crossing facilities; a secondary depot and maintenance facility; the reconstruction of five bridges; and the procurement of 18 cars or six three-car train sets.

The Senate Blue Ribbon committee is currently investigating the controversial North Rail project granted by the Chinese government, citing some irregularities and legal infirmities contained in the contract.

Roh’s visit will also include the signing of agreements on the implementation of the Social Security System and Employment Permit System agreement and the Philippine-Korea Social Security Agreements, among other pacts.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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