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US, Filipino forces start war drills

MANILA, PHILIPPINES (AP) – Thousands of American and Filipino forces began yesterday one of their largest combat exercises in years that will include live-fire manoeuvres, aircraft assaults, urban warfare and beach landings in a showcase of United States (US) firepower in the northern Philippines.

The annual exercises, called Balikatan – Tagalog for shoulder-to-shoulder – will run up to April 8 with nearly 9,000 navy, marines, air force and army troops, including 5,100 American military personnel, to strengthen the long-time treaty allies’ “capabilities and readiness for real-world challenges”, US and Philippine military officials said.

“The US military and Armed Forces of the Philippines will train together to expand and advance shared tactics, techniques, and procedures that strengthen our response capabilities and readiness for real-world challenges,” said US 3rd Marine division’s Commanding General Major General Jay Bargeron. “Our alliance remains a key source of strength and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

First staged in 1991, the Balikatan exercises are anchored on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which commits the US and the Philippines to come to the aid of the other in case of an attack.

The allies aim to be strong and seamlessly braced for any security contingency as a deterrence against war. “It’s for mutual defence, never for offence,” Philippine military spokesman Colonel Ramon Zagala said.

Philippines Exercise Director MGen Charlton Sean Gaerlan of the Philippine Navy and United States Exercise Director MGen Jay Bargeron of the US Marine Corps unfurls the ‘Balikatan’ or ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ flag during the opening ceremonies of the military exercises in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon city, Philippines. PHOTO: AP

The treaty alliance “declares formally our sense of unity and determination to mutually defend against external armed attack, so that no potential aggressor could be under the impression that either of them stands alone”, Zagala told The Associated Press.

But the governor of northern Cagayan province, where amphibious landings with limited live-fire manoeuvres were scheduled to be held in the coastal town of Claveria this week, has opposed any joint exercise utilisng gunfire.

“The military consulted and asked me, but I said I cannot allow any live-fire exercise. Any exercise is okay, but live-fire,” Cagayan Governor Manuel Mamba told AP by telephone.

A Philippine military official said the beach landing exercises would proceed in Claveria without any live-fire training, which will be held instead at Crow Valley, an aircraft gunnery range in Tarlac province further south of Cagayan.