RP-US Balikatan kicks off in April

LEGAZPI CITY – Some 400 American soldiers are coming to the province of Albay, Sorsogon and Masbate to join the RP-US Balikatan exercise slated during the whole month of April 2009.

Col. Ariel Bernardo, Philippine Army 901st Infantry Brigade commander, said the 2009 Balikatan would be purely a humanitarian mission involving medical service and infrastructure development.

Bernardo said Balikatan planning and survey team composed of US Navy and AFP personnel are currently in town to finalize activities to be undertaken during the month long RP-US joint military exercises that will be held in the provinces of Albay, Sorsogon, and the island province of Masbate.

The survey team have specifically pinpointed Ligao City and six other towns in the third district of Albay, the towns of Juban and Irosin in Sorsogon, and Uson and Mobo towns in Masbate as sites of the exercises.

The areas have been considered by military intelligence groups as critical spots where operations by the communist New People”s Army (NPA) “are active.”

Bernardo explained “the Balikatan exercise is a very important undertaking because it is a pro-poor and pro-people project that will surely be welcomed by the beneficiaries in waging a war for peace and development.”

He pointed out that the 15th Balikatan exercise will be absolutely humanitarian and infrastructure-based operation, minus the so-called war games.

The exercise is an annual bi-lateral military exercise between the AFP and the US under the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries.

US Navy Captain Kelly Schmader commander of the Civilian Military Operations (CMO) said his contingent will involve more than 400 Navy personnel composed of engineers, doctors and medical staff.

He said the uniqueness of this exercise is that it endeavors to help communities in Bicol that where hard hit by disaster in 2006 where thousands of lives where lost and more than 30,000 families displaced due to the two super typhoons that struck the region.

He added that the joint military exercise would focus on rendering medical, dental, veterinary and other assistance to poor families in selected areas. It will also include the repair and building of schools, water systems and farm to market roads.

Schmader said the US government has earmarked some $450,000 for this activity.

He added that the joint military contingents would maximize the use of local resources including labor and materials to spur local economic activities in the area.

A day after the press conference, leftist leaders like Greg Bañares, spokesman of the National Democratic Front (NDF) in Bicol, and John Concepcion of Karapatan-Bicol issued statements assailing the Balikatan exercise as a ploy to promote American interest in Bicol.

The so-called militant groups are planning to stage a big rally on January 22 in Legazpi City to protest the forthcoming Balikatan exercises scheduled in Bicol.(BicolMail)

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