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U.S., Filipino Leaders Meet to Strengthen Ties

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

MANILA, Sept. 18, 2000 – Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said the main theme of his trip to Asia is to solidify relationships, and he spent the weekend doing exactly that.

The Philippines was the first stop on his nine-day trip. He met with Philippine President Joseph Estrada, noting the United States supports Estrada’s efforts to promote a unified, democratic country.

“We support his opposition to the groups now that are holding hostages -- including an American,” Cohen said. The secretary stressed the United States will not pay a ransom for the return of the American held hostage by a Muslim separatist rebel group on the island of Mindanao.

He said the United States had repeatedly urged the Philippine government to negotiate the release of the 21 hostages. The Philippine military launched an attack against the rebels at 7 a.m. Sept. 16. Cohen said he received advance word of the operation as a courtesy, but had no details.

He stressed to reporters the United States has no role in the situation.

Cohen said U.S. planners believe the Philippine military needs to form “special units that would be able to conduct military operations under the right circumstances.” He said the United States is willing to work with the Philippine military in that regard. Cohen said the United States would play no direct or indirect role in any operations against rebel groups.

“The longer term solution [for the Philippines] would be to have appropriate training in counterterrorism types of activities which we are prepared to move forward on,” Cohen said.

Cohen also seeks to reinvigorate the U.S.-Philippine defense relationship. In 1991, the Philippine Senate rejected a treaty allowing the United States to maintain the Subic Bay Naval Complex and other bases in the country. The last U.S. service member left in November 1992.

Last year, the Philippine Senate ratified a Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, and U.S. service members began participating in exercises with their Filipino counterparts.

Since the agreement was signed, 34 exercises have been held or are planned through the end of 2001. The largest was Balikatan 2000, a joint combined field training exercise held in April and May. Plans are afoot to make the exercise an annual event, with the next Balikatan exercise slated for April and May 2001.

In addition, the United States maintains close military-to- military contacts with the Filipino military. The United States provides military training and some equipment to the Filipino armed forces.

Other exercises that included the Philippines were the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training, or CARAT, series. The exercises also include units from other Asian allies such as Thailand and Singapore. CARAT was held June 13-26 and contained several humanitarian relief projects as well as peacekeeping exercises. CARAT is scheduled to be repeated in 2001.

Another series of exercises, called Piston, seeks to strengthen U.S.-Philippine interoperability in the special forces arena. Six Piston exercises have already been held and seven more are set through the end of 2001. Dates for the exercises are not available.

Cohen said the exercise program with the Philippines would probably grow with larger units participating.

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Related Sites:
DoD News Briefing: Joint Press Conference with Secretary Cohen and Philippine Secretary Mercado, Sept. 15, 2000
DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen En Route to Manila, Philippines, Sept. 14, 2000

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