[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo is welcomed by Armed Forces chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. at the Davao City International Airport upon her arrival from Sydney where she attend the APEC Summit in September last year. Photo by WILLY PEREZ]

MANILA, JANUARY 28, 2007 (STAR) By James Mananghaya - Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. defended yesterday the extension of his term, saying that no doctrine was violated when he was ordered to stay for another three months.

He said there is nothing wrong with the extension of his term, which is a prerogative of the President, who is also the military’s commander-in-chief.

“There are a lot of comments reaching me, there are a lot of people who congratulate me, and there are criticisms. I hope that if only we could talk, it would be best if we discuss why they are opposing the decision of the President. I don’t think there are doctrines that were violated here because it lies solely on the prerogative of the President,” he said.

Esperon expects those who have always opposed him to continue to react negatively to Mrs. Arroyo’s decision.

President Arroyo extended Esperon’s term as AFP chief for three months until May 9. Esperon is set to retire on his 56th birthday on Feb. 9.

Army chief Lt. Gen. Alexander Yano, a member of the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1976, will replace Esperon.

Mrs. Arroyo said security officials and military officers agreed to extend Esperon’s term to enable the AFP chief to continue the campaign against communist rebels.

Esperon said that while he feels some personal inconvenience because of the negative criticism, he does his best not to be overcome by these, and instead focus on the job at hand.

Esperon said his family was planning for his retirement, even his siblings are prepared to come to the Philippines from abroad for the turnover of command, until the extension of his term was formally relayed to him by Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita last Saturday morning.

“I will even just listen to criticisms, study that but that should not in any way prevent me from doing my job, what’s important here is that there is a task at hand and that should be accomplished,” he said.

Esperon said even star rank officers did not react negatively to his extension, as they are more focused on producing accomplishments, especially now the military has been given a 2010 deadline to defeat the 39 year-old communist insurgency and the notorious Abu Sayyaf group in Mindanao.

Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile welcomed yesterday the extension of the term of Esperon.

Enrile, a former defense secretary, said it is the President’s prerogative to extending the term of the AFP chief.

“It’s the prerogative of the President. In fairness to Gen. Esperon, he is a very able officer,” Enrile said in an interview over radio dzBB.

He also doused off criticisms that Mrs. Arroyo’s move to extend Esperon’s term was an offshoot of the reported destabilization efforts and political payoff by the President for the general’s role in the 2004 elections. Esperon was one of the military officers being linked to the “Hello Garci” taped conversations allegedly related to irregularities in the 2004 presidential elections.

In defending Esperon’s integrity as a military officer, Enrile recalled that Esperon is a professional soldier.

He said that it is not surprising that some quarters are happy, while others are criticizing Esperon’s term extension but President Arroyo has made a decision and the entire AFP should respect it.

Esperon expressed doubt over the success of any plot to topple the Arroyo administration, despite the continued efforts to destabilize the government.

The threat against the government will continue, said Esperon who is on an inspection tour of various military camps in Mindanao.

“Yes, they (destabilizers) will always continue, but as to their succeeding that will be another matter,” Esperon said when asked about the threat of rebel soldiers belonging to the Magdalo group.

He said there are no new personalities that want to bring down the Arroyo administration.

Esperon said based on the failed Nov. 29 standoff at the Peninsula Manila Hotel in Makati, the leaders of the hotel siege were the same rebel soldiers who have been discharged and their civilian supporters.

“That’s why I firmly believed nobody would join them (rebel soldiers) anymore. The people don’t buy it anymore. I think we are over the hump,” Esperon said.

The Peninsula hotel standoff was led by detained Sen. Antonio Trillanes and relieved Army Scout Rangers commander Brig. Gen. Danilo Lim who walked out from a hearing at the Makati Regional Trial court and were joined by several discharged soldiers and civilian supporters in taking over the hotel.

The rebels, however, surrendered after a standoff for several hours and an assault by loyal government troops.

Esperon said it is better for the Filipino people to move forward and help the government.

He said there has been no report of any soldier to participate any uprising after the military officials’ continued reminder to the troops of their constitutional mandate to protect the state.

Senior military officials in Mindanao also downplayed reports of the recruitment of soldiers to join another destabilization plot.

“There have been reports of recruitment (of soldiers) for destabilization, but these were mere rumors,” said Maj. Gen. Nehemias Pajarito, commanding general of the 1st Army Tabak Division.

Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief Lt. Gen. Nelso Allaga said the troops are just too busy with their mission to maintain stability in Sulu and Basilan to entertain rumors of toppling the government.

Naval Forces Western Mindanao Command chief Rear Admiral Emilio Marayag said the Navy and Marines are concentrating efforts to arrest the killers of Catholic priest Fr. Reynaldo Roda who was shot dead by suspected Abu Sayyaf bandits in Tawi-Tawi.

“Our forces are professional people and cannot just be swayed by rumors of destabilization,” Marayag said. - With Roel Pareño

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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