‘Balikatan’ exercise set in May

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    NEARLY 11,000 American and Filipino soldiers will participate in the “Balikatan” exercise scheduled this May, potentially the last between the US and the Philippines.

    The annual exercise will be held three months before the formal termination of the 21-year-old Visiting Forces Agreement which provides legal cover to visiting US forces.

    The advance party of the participating US forces are scheduled to arrive in the country next month, AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said in a forum yesterday.

    “It’s within the 180-day period so it will proceed as scheduled. There will be no changes in the original plan in terms of number of attendees, unless there will be last-minute announcement,” said Arevalo.

    Under the VFA, it is deemed terminated 180 days after the notification by one of the parties. The Department of Foreign Affairs notified US of the Philippine government’s decision to terminate the pact on February 10.

    Arevalo said about 6,500 American and 4,300 Filipino soldiers are participating in this year’s Balikatan, higher than last year’s 3,500 American and 4,000 Filipino soldiers.

    Arevalo could not say when exactly the Balikatan exercise — which usually deals with territorial defense and counter-terrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response – will be held. A source said it will be from May 3 to 15.

    Arevalo declined to answer questions on whether there will be exercises with the Americans after the VFA’s official termination.

    Nevertheless, he said exercises may still be pursued with US forces if the Americans will waive privileges they enjoy under the VFA, including visa-less entry and non-payment of customs duties.

    On February 13, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said all military exercises with the US within the 180-day period will proceed, unless the Americans will opt to discontinue training activities. Nevertheless, he said that “once the termination (of the VFA) is final, we will cease to have exercises with them.”