U.S. forces will hold two-week-long military exercises in the Philippines despite a controversy over four U.S. Marines accused of raping a Filipina after the last such exercises, officials said yesterday.
The exercises, involving some 5,500 U.S. personnel, will be conducted from February 20 to March 5 in different locations including the southern islands of Sulu, a known haunt of Muslim extremists linked to the al-Qaida network.
U.S. embassy spokesman Matt Lussenhop said the exercises had been planned for some time and "nobody from either government has proposed stopping or postponing them" despite the rape allegations.
He said the scheduled "Balikatan" (Arm-in-arm) exercises would not be affected by charges that four U.S. Marines raped a Filipina on November 1, just after taking part in exercises in the former U.S. naval base of Subic, north of Manila.
Under a bilateral agreement covering the legal status of U.S. troops, the four were turned over to the custody of the U.S. embassy pending trial. But many prominent Filipinos are demanding they be turned over to the Philippines while the legal proceedings continue.
The case has attracted national attention in this former U.S. colony where there are still sensitivities over America's influence.
Lussenhop said the exercises would include humanitarian activities by some 250 U.S. personnel in the southern islands of Sulu, a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremists who have carried out bombings, kidnappings and other attacks against foreigners and Christians in this country.
The Abu Sayyaf have been linked to the al-Qaida network of Osama bin Laden.
However Lussenhop said combat training would be carried out in the northern and central Philippines and not in Sulu where local troops are still struggling against the Abu Sayyaf.