US reiterates commitment to enhance security ties with Philippines

US reiterates commitment to enhance security ties with Philippines
Filipinos wearing masks for protection against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pass a mural dedicated to healthcare workers in this Oct. 30, 2020 photo taken in Manila. (Reuters)
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Updated 18 February 2021

US reiterates commitment to enhance security ties with Philippines

US reiterates commitment to enhance security ties with Philippines
  • Cites importance of ‘open dialogue’ to maintain strength of alliance

MANILA: Washington will continue to find ways to strengthen and advance security cooperation with the Philippines, its “oldest” ally in the region, the US State Department has told Arab News.

It follows the latest demand by President Rodrigo Duterte for the US to pay more if it wants to maintain the two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which allows the deployment of American troops in the country.

“We value our alliance with the Philippines, which is the oldest in the Asia-Pacific region,” the State Department said.

It an unprovoked, angry tirade on Friday, during an address to Philippine troops after inspecting newly acquired air assets, Duterte said that if the US wants the VFA to be continue, it would have to pay, citing US-Chinese relations.

“It’s a shared responsibility, but your share of responsibility does not come free. Because after all, when the war breaks out, we all pay,” Duterte said. “We are nearest to the garrison there, where there are a lot of arsenals of the Chinese armed forces.”

While the State Department’s letter did not directly address Duterte’s demands, it emphasized that it “will continue to look for ways to further strengthen and advance security cooperation that furthers shared security challenges and respects human rights.

“Open dialogue between allies is essential to maintaining the strength of an alliance which is vital to both of our countries’ security,” it said.

Duterte had unilaterally canceled the VFA last year in an angry response to an ally being denied a US visa, but retracted his decision a few months later.

He has faced widespread criticism for his latest remarks on the VFA, which several Filipinos said was “embarrassing.”

Senator Panfilo Lacson and Vice President Leni Robredo, for their part, said that Duterte’s statement gave the impression that the Philippines was a “nation of extortionists.”

Duterte responded during his public address on Monday, when he said that “foreign relations or foreign policy is vested in the president alone” and that Lacson had “nothing to do with the VFA.”

On Tuesday, however, Lacson pointed out that the constitution gives senators a say in the Philippines’ international agreements such as the VFA, “especially if they affect the country’s long-term national interest and security.”

Lacson added that “a diplomatic and civil approach is more effective in upholding the national interest in the long run.”

Another lawmaker, Senator Richard Gordon, advised Duterte to let his defense and foreign affairs secretaries negotiate for the VFA in private.

“Though the words were too harsh … the president’s demand was for the country’s interests,” he said.

During his Monday address, Duterte also accused the US of storing arms in “depots” in the Philippines and “slowly converting Subic into an American base.”

Subic is a former US naval base north of the capital city, Manila.

Denying the president’s claims, Wilma Eisma, chairperson and administrator of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) said in a statement on Wednesday that, under the VFA, US military vessels and support ships “are allowed to visit the Subic Bay Freeport Zone.

“This agreement also gives the same privilege to vessels from other nations, including Japan, India, Australia, South Korea and Indonesia, whose military ships have docked here under the said accord,” Esima said.

She added that the port visits by foreign military vessels last for only a few days — long enough for disembarkation and re-embarkation of troops and assets in case of military exercises under the VFA, or for ship re-supply and onshore visits by the crew in other cases.

These visits, she explained, have not, in any way, converted the “Subic Bay Freeport into a military base.”

Eisma further said that according to its mandate, the SBMA operates and manages the special economic zone to develop a self-sustaining industrial, commercial, financial and investment center to generate employment opportunities in and around the zone and to attract and promote productive foreign investments.

“The SBMA will continue with its economic mandate and defer to competent authorities in the matter of foreign policy and national security,” she said.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque supported the president’s demands on Monday for Washington to pay more than “loose change” for the VFA.

“If we have very strong ties with a very strong ally then I think it also comes with a higher amount of financial assistance to be given,” he told a regular briefing.

Roque cited a study by the Washington-based Stimson Center, which showed the Philippines received $3.9 billion in US counter-terrorism support from 2002-2017 compared to the $16.4 billion for Pakistan over the same period.

“We got $3.9 billion. Is that a huge amount? That’s loose change compared to what other countries were getting,” he said.

The VFA provides a legal framework through which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines.

Experts say that without it, other bilateral defense agreements, including the Mutual Defense Treaty, cannot be implemented.

Having notified Washington in February last year that he was canceling the deal, he subsequently extended the termination process, which US President Joe Biden’s administration will now oversee.

Representatives from both countries have been meeting to iron out differences over the deal.


Sweden attacker identified as 22-year-old Afghan

Sweden attacker identified as 22-year-old Afghan
Updated 04 March 2021

Sweden attacker identified as 22-year-old Afghan

Sweden attacker identified as 22-year-old Afghan
  • The suspect, who is in his twenties, was taken to hospital after being shot in the leg by police following the mid-afternoon attack
  • Police did not specify the man’s nationality, but according to several media reports, he was originally from Afghanistan

STOCKHOLM: The suspect in the stabbing that left seven injured in Sweden is a 22-year-old Afghan, who arrived in the Nordic country in 2018, media reported Thursday.
Swedish police are investigating a possible terror incident after a man stabbed and injured at least seven people in the city of Vetlanda on Wednesday.
A police statement early Thursday revised the number of injured in the attack to seven from eight but did not give further details.
The suspect, who is in his twenties, was taken to hospital after being shot in the leg by police following the mid-afternoon attack in the southern city of 13,000 inhabitants.
Speaking to AFP, police said the man had used a “sharp weapon,” while local media reported that he had brandished a knife.
Police initially treated the incident as “attempted murder” but later changed it in a statement to include a “suspected terrorist crime,” without giving further details.
Police did not specify the man’s nationality, but according to several media reports, he was originally from Afghanistan and had arrived in Sweden in 2018.
Three of those attacked were said to have suffered life-threatening injuries, while two others were in serious condition, according to the local health authority in Jonkoping where they were being treated in hospital.
Regional police chief Malena Grann later clarified that a preliminary investigation was still under the designation “attempted murder,” but details had emerged that meant they were also looking into “potential terror motives.”
“There are details in the investigation that have led us to investigate whether there was a terror motive,” Grann said, without giving details.
He added that the police were working closely with the Swedish intelligence service Sapo.
The suspect was a resident of the area and previously known to police, but in the past had only been accused of “petty crimes,” including small-scale cannabis use, according to local press.
The extent of his injuries were also unknown but police said they believed they would be able question him.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven condemned the “horrific violence” in a statement published on his Facebook page.
“We face these despicable actions with the combined force of the community,” Lofven said.
“We are reminded of how frail our safe existence is,” Lofven added.
Swedish intelligence services said the terrorist threat was high.
The Scandinavian country has been targeted twice by attacks in recent years.
In December 2010, a man carried out a suicide bomb attack in the center of Stockholm. He died after only slightly injuring passers-by.
In April 2017, a radicalized Uzbek asylum seeker mowed down pedestrians in Stockholm with a stolen truck, killing five people. He was sentenced to life in prison.


Hong Kong court denies bail to 32 democracy activists

Hong Kong court denies bail to 32 democracy activists
Updated 04 March 2021

Hong Kong court denies bail to 32 democracy activists

Hong Kong court denies bail to 32 democracy activists
  • The group of activists was charged with conspiracy to commit subversion under the law and detained on Sunday

HONG KONG: A Hong Kong court on Thursday denied bail to 32 out of 47 pro-democracy activists charged under a Beijing-imposed national security law, ending a four-day marathon court hearing.
The group of activists was charged with conspiracy to commit subversion under the law and detained on Sunday over their involvement in an unofficial primary election last year that authorities said was a plot to paralyze Hong Kong’s government.
The mass charges against the activists were the most sweeping action taken against the city’s pro-democracy camp since the national security law was implemented last June.
With the 32 activists remanded in custody until the next court hearing on May 31, it means that a majority of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy figures will now be in jail or in self-exile abroad amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
Bail proceedings for the activists began on Monday, often taking a full day and at times continuing into the early hours of the morning.
The bail proceedings ongoing since Monday have lasted often a full day and at times into the morning, and several defendants have fallen ill.
Under Hong Kong’s common law system, defendants are usually granted bail for non-violent crimes. But the national security law removed the presumption of bail, with a clause saying it will not be granted unless the judge has sufficient grounds to believe defendants “will not continue to commit acts endangering national security.”
The 47 are part of a broader group of 55 activists who were arrested in January for their role in the primary elections. Eight of them were not charged on Sunday.
The primary was aimed at determining the strongest candidates to field for a legislative council election that would give the pro-democracy camp the best chance to gain a legislative majority. The government later postponed the legislative elections, citing public health risks from the coronavirus.
If the pro-democracy camp had won a majority, at least some members of the camp had plans to vote down major bills that would eventually force Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to resign. Authorities said the activists’ participation in the primary was part of a plan to paralyze the city’s legislature and subvert state power.
The national security law criminalizes secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces to intervene in the city’s affairs as well as terrorism. Serious offenders could face life imprisonment.
Prominent pro-democracy advocate Joshua Wong, who is currently serving a 13 1/2-month jail sentence on protest-related charges, as well as Benny Tai, the co-founder of the 2014 Occupy Central movement, are among the activists charged this week.


Vatican mints medal for Pope Francis’s Iraq visit

Vatican mints medal for Pope Francis’s Iraq visit
Updated 04 March 2021

Vatican mints medal for Pope Francis’s Iraq visit

Vatican mints medal for Pope Francis’s Iraq visit
  • It will be a gift to Iraqi representatives, sources tell Arab News

ROME: A special bronze medal has been minted by the Vatican to celebrate the visit of Pope Francis to Iraq.

Vatican sources told Arab News that the medal will be one of the gifts that the leader of the Catholic Church will give to Iraqi representatives whom he will meet during his four-day visit, which starts on Friday.

The medal has been designed by artists from the Ufficio Filatelico e Numismatico, the dedicated branch of the Vatican State Post Office for stamps and coins.

It features the map of Iraq, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a palm tree and Abraham leaving Ur, the Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia where the prophet is believed to have been born.

In the lower part of the medal, there is the inscription of the apostolic visit’s dates (March 5-8) in Latin, the official language of the Vatican. In its upper part the medal reads “Visit Iraquiam,” Latin for “Visit to Iraq.”

The Ufficio Filatelico e Numismatico mints a special medal for every papal trip. This one will be the 33rd since Pope Francis was elected. It will not be for sale. It is not known yet whether the Vatican State Post Office will issue a special stamp for the occasion.


UK arrests more white people on terror charges than any other race

UK arrests more white people on terror charges than any other race
Updated 04 March 2021

UK arrests more white people on terror charges than any other race

UK arrests more white people on terror charges than any other race
  • 2020 saw Britain record lowest number of terror arrests in 9 years
  • Far-right terrorism fastest-growing threat in country but Islamists still plan, carry out majority of attacks

LONDON: The number of white terror suspects arrested in Britain has outstripped that of any other race for the third year in a row.

Official reports show that 89 white people were arrested on terror offenses last year, compared with 63 Asian suspects, 15 black suspects and 18 of other ethnicities.

“The proportion of white people arrested exceeded the proportion of Asian people arrested for the third consecutive year,” a Home Office document said.

“Arrests of persons of white ethnic appearance accounted for 48 per cent of arrests, up seven percentage points on the previous year. Those of Asian ethnic appearance accounted for 34 percent of terrorist-related arrests, down five percentage points.”

The total number of terror arrests in 2020 fell to 185 people, the lowest figure in nine years, though the Home Office said this could be related to the coronavirus pandemic’s restrictions on public life.

The head of UK counterterror policing has described the far right as the fastest-growing terror threat in the country, although the majority of attacks and thwarted plots are still by Islamist terrorists.

The UK has banned various right-wing terror groups, which often align themselves with neo-Nazi ideology and symbolism, and in open disdain of Britain’s Muslim communities.

Since March 2017, 12 terror attacks have occurred in the UK — 10 Islamist attacks and two by the far right, including one in which a white man drove a van into worshippers outside a mosque in London, killing one man and injuring nine.

A number of attacks, often targeting Muslims, have occurred or been narrowly avoided on the European mainland since then.


Italy sees rise in migrant arrivals

Italy sees rise in migrant arrivals
Updated 04 March 2021

Italy sees rise in migrant arrivals

Italy sees rise in migrant arrivals
  • NGO describes at least three fatal accidents in 2021, with many victims still unknown

ROME: The number of migrants landing in Italy in the first two months of the year doubled compared to the same period in 2020, according to the Italian Ministry of the Interior.

Most of the arrivals were recorded in February, with around 4000 pushbacks of migrants reported in Libya during the period.

According to data released by the Italian government, 5,306 migrants landed on Italian soil between Jan. 1 and March 2, 2021 compared to 2,553 in 2020 and just 269 in 2019.

The number of migrants who reached Italy in February was 3,896, including 398 minors.

“They were all desperately fleeing worlds in which it is impossible to survive,” said the NGO Mediterranea Saving Humans, commenting on the data released by the government.

The group added that cases had nearly doubled compared to the previous year and tripled if taking last February into consideration, when 1,211 people arrived. All this has happened despite bad weather and sea conditions during the coldest months of the year.

Mediterranea added that departures from Tunisia had risen significantly since last August “due to an unsustainable economic collapse that continues to sow instability in the country.”

It added that pushbacks off Libya by the coast guard were “alarming,” and mentioned a number of people had died in a series of accidents at sea.

Since the beginning of 2021 up to March 1, a reported 4,029 people were intercepted and arbitrarily detained, including 222 minors, while at least 142 were reported missing and 28 found dead.

“The victims of three shipwrecks recorded during the month (of February) remain, for the moment, without a face and name,” the organization said.

According to Mediterranea, the first incident was reported off the island of Lampedusa on Friday, Feb. 19, “during a transshipment operation at night, carried out by coast guards and finance police in which 47 people were rescued.” The second was “in Libyan SAR waters on Saturday, Feb. 20, after a rescue operation carried out by tugboat Vos Triton involving a boat with 120 people on board; 77 people were rescued.”

The third accident was recorded “a few kilometers from the Libyan coast on Feb. 28, when 95 out of the 125 on board were rescued.”

In its report, Mediterranea described “tens of thousands of victims of indescribable brutality at the hands of traffickers and militants along the route that (goes), through Libya, to the central Mediterranean.”

The NGO reiterated its call for authorities to not consider Libya a safe port, and asked for “a pact between institutions and civil society so that, in line with international obligations, the right/duty to save these adrift men, women and children is regulated, regardless of their nationality and legal status.”