Philippines says Chinese vessels in disputed waters illegal

FILE PHOTO - A view of Philippine occupied (Pagasa) Thitu island in disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

By Karen Lema

MANILA (Reuters) – The presence of more than 200 Chinese fishing boats near an island occupied by Manila in the disputed South China Sea is illegal and a clear violation of Philippine sovereignty, the country’s foreign ministry said on Thursday.

The Philippines military has described them as a “suspected maritime militia”.

“Such actions, when not repudiated by the Chinese government, are deemed to have been adopted by it,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a rare rebuke of Beijing.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who has pursued warmer ties with China since taking office in 2016 in exchange for billions of dollars of pledged loans and investment, said he would not allow China to occupy Thitu island because it “belongs to us”.

“I assure you, unless China wants a war with us, I will not allow them to occupy Pagasa”, Duterte told reporters, using the local name for Thitu.

The presence of the trawlers near Thitu island raises questions about their intent and role “in support of coercive objectives”, the ministry said, days after the Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest with China.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not refer directly to Manila’s protest, but he said bilateral talks on the South China Sea held in the Philippines on Wednesday were “frank, friendly and constructive”.

Both sides reiterated that South China Sea issues should be resolved peacefully by parties directly involved, he said.

The Philippines has monitored the Chinese boats from January to March this year, according to military data.

“These are suspected maritime militia,” Captain Jason Ramon, spokesman for the military’s Western Command said this week.

“There are times when they are just there without conducting fishing. At times, they are just stationary.”

The Philippines, Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims of sovereignty in the busy South China Sea, a conduit for goods in excess of $3.4 trillion every year.

FILE PHOTO - A Philippine flag flutters in Philippine occupied (Pagasa) Thitu island, in disputed South China Sea, as soldiers and civilians sing the country's national anthem April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

FILE PHOTO – A Philippine flag flutters in Philippine occupied (Pagasa) Thitu island, in disputed South China Sea, as soldiers and civilians sing the country’s national anthem April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.

“We call on concerned parties to desist from any action and activity that contravenes the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, as these generate tension, mistrust and uncertainty, and threatens regional peace and stability,” the Philippines ministry said.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines it would come to its defense if it came under attack in the South China Sea.

(Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Darren Schuettler and Alison Williams)

Pompeo assures Philippines of U.S. protection in event of sea conflict

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

By Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines on Friday it would come to its defense if it came under attack in the South China Sea, reaffirming a defense code that Manila’s security chiefs have sought to revise.

Speaking during a stopover after a summit in Hanoi with North Korea, Pompeo said a 1951 Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defence Treaty would be adhered to if its ally was a victim of aggression, and singled out China as a threat to stability.

“China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, security and therefore economic livelihood as well as that of the United States,” he told a news conference in Manila.

“Any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations.”

The Philippines, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia have competing claims of sovereignty in the waterway, a conduit for in excess of $3.4 trillion of goods carried annually on commercial vessels.

Pompeo said those countries were responsible for ensuring “these incredibly vital sea lanes are open and China does not pose a threat to closing them down”.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that China and the countries around the South China Sea were working hard to protect peace and stability.

“So if countries outside the region, like the United States, really want to consider the peace, tranquillity and well-being of people in the region, then they shouldn’t make trouble out of nothing and incite trouble,” Lu told reporters.

Pompeo also said allies should be wary of risks of using Chinese technology.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has been seeking a review of the treaty, which was agreed five years after the Philippines gained independence from the United States in 1946, with the aim of clarifying the extent to which the United States will defend the Philippines should it come under attack.

Lorenzana’s push for greater certainty comes amid a rapid buildup by Beijing of military assets, coastguard and fishing militia in the South China Sea, most notably on and around artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago.

Although there is no longer a permanent U.S. military presence in the Philippines, joint exercises, intelligence exchanges and transfers of hardware take place regularly under various agreements.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, however, is not a fan and believes that the alliance makes his country a potential target of China, with which he wants stronger business ties.

Duterte has repeatedly questioned the U.S. commitment, noting that it did nothing to stop China from turning reefs into islands equipped with radar, missiles batteries and hangers for fighter jets, and within firing distance of the Philippines.

Pompeo made a courtesy call on Duterte late on Thursday.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin confirmed that discussions on the defense treaty were taking place, but in his own view, it was better not be too specific about its parameters.

“I believe in the old theory of deterrence,” he told reporters. “In vagueness lies the best deterrence.”

He added: “We are very assured, we are very confident that United States has, in the words of Secretary Pompeo, and in the words of President Trump to our president, ‘we have your back’.”

(Writing by Martin Petty; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)

As U.S. goes quiet on close naval patrols, China speaks out

An aerial photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, May 11, 2015.

By Greg Torode and Philip Wen

HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) – While the Pentagon plays down patrols close to Chinese-controlled reefs and islands in the South China Sea, Beijing is sounding the alarm about them, seeking to justify what experts say will be an even greater presence in the disputed region.

Chinese officials publicized the latest U.S. “freedom of navigation patrol”, protesting the deployment last week of the destroyer USS Hopper to within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, an atoll west of the Philippines which Beijing disputes with Manila.

It was the second time in recent months that confirmation of a patrol came from Beijing, not Washington, which had previously announced or leaked details.

Bonnie Glaser, a security expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said while the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump had a policy of keeping the patrols regular but low key, China was willing to publicly exploit them to further their military ends.

“It is difficult to conclude otherwise,” she said. “Even as it pushes ahead with these (patrols), I don’t think the Trump administration has really come to terms with what it will tolerate from China in the South China Sea, and what it simply won’t accept, and Beijing seems to grasp this.”

In official statements, Chinese foreign ministry official Lu Kang said China would take “necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty” in the resource-rich sea.

Some regional diplomats and security analysts believe that will involve increased Chinese deployments and the quicker militarization of China’s expanded facilities across the Spratlys archipelago.

While U.S. officials did not target China in their comments, couching freedom-of-navigation patrols as a “routine” assertions of international law, Beijing was quick to cast Washington as the provocateur.

The Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper on Monday accused the U.S. of upsetting recent peace and co-operation and “wantonly provoking trouble”, saying China had must now strengthen its presence in the strategic waterway.

CONSTRUCTION AND MILITARIZATION

In recent years, China has built up several reefs and islets into large-scale airstrips and bases as it seeks to assert and enforce its claims to much of the sea, through which some $3 trillion in trade passes annually. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, hold rival claims.

Chinese coastguard and People’s Liberation Army navy ships patrol vast swathes of the South China Sea, routinely shadowing U.S. and other international naval deployments, regional naval officers say.

Zhang Baohui, a mainland security analyst at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, told Reuters he believed Beijing was rattled by Trump’s sharpening Asia strategy and they might be tempted to react in the South China Sea, even after months of relative calm.

“We can perhaps expect the Chinese to push ahead with militarization as retaliation,” he said.

A new U.S. national defense strategy unveiled last week stressed the need to counter the rising authoritarian powers of China and Russia, outlining a need to better support allies and newer partners against coercion.

While most analysts and regional envoys believe China remains keen to avoid an actual conflict with the significantly more powerful U.S. navy in the South China Sea, it is working to close the gap.

China has added bunkers, hangars and advanced radars on its new runways in the Spratlys, although it has not fully equipped them with the advanced surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles they use to protect the Paracels grouping further north.

Similarly, Beijing has yet to land jet fighters in the Spratlys – test flights some experts are expecting this year.

POTENTIAL FLASHPOINT

The latest patrol was at least the fifth such patrol under the Trump administration and the first to Scarborough – one of the more contentious features in the region.

Scarborough, once a U.S. bombing range, was blockaded by the Chinese in 2012, prompting the Philippines to launch its successful legal case in the Hague against China’s excessive territorial claims.

China allowed Filipino fishermen back to Scarborough’s rich waters last year, but it remains a potential flashpoint as both sides claim sovereignty and China maintains a steady presence of ships nearby.

While experts and regional envoys expect China to ramp up operations from the Spratlys, none expect it to build on Scarborough – something widely believed to be a red line that would provoke the United States, given its long-standing security treaty with the Philippines.

Shi Yinhong, who heads the Center for American Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University, said China had “lived with” U.S. patrols for several years but the key facts on the ground remained in China’s favor and broader tensions had “improved remarkably”.

“These islands, especially those with reclaimed land and military capability already deployed, they’re still in Chinese hands,” Shi, who has advised the Chinese government on diplomacy, told Reuters.

“I don’t think Trump has the stomach and the guts to change this fundamental status quo.”

 

(Reporting By Greg Torode in Hong Kong and Philip Wen in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

Philippines to protest to China over apparent airbase on manmade island

Construction is shown on Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly Islands, the disputed South China Sea in this June 16, 2017 satellite image released by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to Reuters on June 29, 2017.

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines will make a diplomatic protest to China, which the southeast Asian nation’s defense minister described as having reneged on a promise not to militarize artificial islands in the busy South China Sea waterway.

The United States has criticized China’s build-up of military facilities on the artificial islands and is concerned they could be used to restrict free movement along the key trade route.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s comment followed a Dec. 30 broadcast of aerial footage by the official China Central Television (CCTV) showing Fiery Cross Reef, which appeared to have been transformed into an airbase.

“The Chinese government said some time ago that they were not going to militarize those reclaimed islands,” Lorenzana told reporters, adding that the protest would be made through the foreign ministry.

“If it is true and we can prove that they have been putting soldiers and even weapons systems, that will be a violation of what they said.”

Asked about the protest, China’s foreign ministry spokesman said the construction was on the country’s territory and was intended to aid peace in the region, as well as maritime safety and disaster prevention.

“Of course, China also needs to construct necessary defense equipment for its territory,” the spokesman, Lu Kang, told a regular briefing on Tuesday. “The relevant equipment is not directed at any particular country.”

China and the Philippines have long sparred over the South China Sea, but relations have improved considerably under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been courting Beijing in hopes of winning business and investment.

China has assured the Philippines it will not occupy new features or territory in the South China Sea, under a new “status quo” brokered by Manila as both sides try to strengthen their relations.

Reports about China militarizing reclaimed islands were not new, presidential spokesman Harry Roque told a regular news briefing.

“We have always been against the militarization of the area,” he added. “It is certainly not OK, because it constitutes a further threat to peace and security in area.”

China is holding to a commitment not to reclaim more islands, Roque added, however.

“There is still no breach of the good faith obligation for as long as China has not embarked on new reclamation,” he said, when asked about the situation on the reef.

China has denied U.S. charges that it is militarizing the South China Sea, which also is claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The reef has a hospital with more than 50 doctors, high-speed mobile connections and an airport with a runway of 3,160 meters (3,456 yards) to serve what Beijing calls a “weather station” equipped with radar, Chinese state media say.

In the last 27 years, China’s navy has sent more than 1,000 soldiers to guard the reef, state media have said.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd in BEIJING; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Philippines orders probe into Sanofi dengue vaccine for 730,000 children

Concepcion Yusop, a national immunization program manager, shows an anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia inside a vaccine storage room in Sta. Cruz city, Metro Manila, Philippines December 4, 2017.

By Manolo Serapio Jr and Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines ordered an investigation on Monday into the immunization of more than 730,000 children with a vaccine for dengue that has been suspended following an announcement by French drug company Sanofi  that it could worsen the disease in some cases.

The World Health Organization said it hoped to conduct a full review by year-end of data on the vaccine, commercially known as Dengvaxia. In the meantime, the WHO recommended that it only be used in people who had a prior infection with dengue.

The government of Brazil, where dengue is a significant health challenge, confirmed it already had recommended restricted use of the vaccine but had not suspended it entirely.

Amid mounting public concern, Sanofi explained its “new findings” at a news conference in Manila but did not say why action was not taken after a WHO report in mid-2016 that identified the risk it was now flagging.

A non-governmental organization (NGO) said it had received information that three children who were vaccinated with Dengvaxia in the Philippines had died and a senator said he was aware of two cases.

However, Department of Health Undersecretary Gerardo Bayugo told Reuters the three referred to by the NGO died due to causes not related to the vaccine and Sanofi said no deaths had been reported as a result of the program.

“As far as we know, as far as we are made aware, there are no reported deaths that are related to dengue vaccination,” said Ruby Dizon, medical director at Sanofi Pasteur Philippines.

Last week, the Philippines Department of Health halted the use of Dengvaxia after Sanofi said it must be strictly limited due to evidence it can worsen the disease in people not previously exposed to the infection.

In a statement, Sanofi said the long-term safety evaluation of the vaccines showed significantly fewer hospitalizations due to dengue in vaccinated people over 9 years old compared with those who had not been vaccinated.

Nearly 734,000 children aged 9 and over in the Philippines have received one dose of the vaccine as part of a program that cost 3.5 billion pesos ($69.54 million).

The Department of Justice on Monday ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to look into “the alleged danger to public health … and if evidence so warrants, to file appropriate charges thereon.”

There was no indication that Philippines health officials knew of any risks when they administered the vaccination.

However, the WHO said in a July 2016 research paper that “vaccination may be ineffective or may theoretically even increase the future risk of hospitalized or severe dengue illness in those who are seronegative at the time of first vaccination regardless of age.”

Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority said last week that it flagged risks when Dengvaxia was approved there in October 2016, and was working with Sanofi to strengthen risk warnings on the drug’s packaging.

According to Sanofi in Manila, 19 licences were granted for Dengvaxia, and it was launched in 11 countries, two of which – the Philippines and Brazil – had public vaccination programs.

Brazil’s healthcare regulator Anvisa said in a statement that it now recommends that people who have never been infected with dengue not take the vaccine, which was approved for use in Brazil at the end of 2015.

It was not known whether many people have taken the vaccine, if it was part of any government immunization program or if any illnesses or deaths linked to the drug have been reported to the government.

Anvisa did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did the Health Ministry.

A spokesman for Sanofi in Paris was not immediately available for comment. “A SHAMELESS SCAM” A spokesman for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said on Sunday the government would hold to account those responsible for the program.

Former Health Secretary Janette Garin, who implemented the program under the administration of then-President Benigno Aquino, said she welcomed the investigation.

“In the event that there will be authorities who will point culpability to me, I am ready to face the consequences,” she told ANC TV. “We implemented it in accordance with WHO guidance and recommendations.”

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said there had been no reported case of severe dengue infection since the vaccine was administered and urged the public “not to spread information that may cause undue alarm.”

Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption, an NGO, said it was checking a report that three children on the northern island of Luzon had died since being vaccinated in April 2016 but the Department of Health said the deaths were not due to Dengvaxia.

“When we evaluated the clinical records, it was not related to the dengue vaccination,” Bayugo said.

A prominent senator, Richard Gordon, told Reuters he was aware of two deaths – but gave no details – and said approval and procurement for the program was done with “undue haste.”

Dengue is a mosquito-borne tropical disease. Although it is not as serious as malaria, it is spreading rapidly in many parts of the world, killing about 20,000 people a year and infecting hundreds of millions.

While Sanofi’s Dengvaxia is the first-ever approved vaccine for dengue, scientists already recognized it was not perfect and did not protect equally against the four different types of the virus in clinical tests.

A new analysis from six years of clinical data showed Dengvaxia vaccine provides persistent protective benefit against dengue fever in those who had prior infection.

But for those not previously infected by the virus, more cases of severe disease could occur in the long term following vaccination, Sanofi said.

 

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema in Manila, John Geddie in Singapore and Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo and Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Bill Trott)

 

Trump meets Japan, Australia leaders over trade, North Korea threat

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a trilateral meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull alongside the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines November 13, 2017.

MANILA (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump raised North Korea’s missile tests during talks on Monday with the prime ministers of Japan and Australia, and said “a lot” of progress had been made in negotiations on trade.

On the sidelines of a summit of East and Southeast Asian leaders in Manila, Trump met with Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, and said discussions at the meeting would include tensions on the Korean Peninsula and trade.

In brief remarks prior to news media being ushered out of the meeting, Turnbull said North Korea’s “recklessness” needed to be stopped, while Abe said the most immediate challenge was to ensure regional peace and stability.

Following the meeting, the White House said “the three leaders reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining maximum pressure on North Korea in the effort to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.”

“They also discussed expanded security cooperation for enhanced deterrence and defense against North Korean aggression,” the White House said in a statement.

The three men also discussed the need for “free and open” trade in the Indo-Pacific region and “the need to pursue fair and reciprocal trade,” the White House added.

Trump, who campaigned heavily on U.S. trade issues, made pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Asian trade deal one of his first acts in office. His administration has instead pledged to reach bilateral pacts with individual nations.

Countries remaining in the pact have said the deal is advancing without the United States.

 

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Martin Petty and Susan HeaveyEditing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jonathan Oatis)

 

Trump heads to Japan with North Korea on his mind

U.S. President Donald Trump shouts to reporters as he and and first lady Melania Trump board Air Force One for travel to Hawaii, on his way to an extended trip to five countries in Asia, from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. November 3, 2017.

By Steve Holland

HONOLULU (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump heads to Japan on the first stop of his five-nation tour of Asia on Saturday, looking to present a united front with the Japanese against North Korea as tensions run high over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests.

Trump, who is on a 12-day trip, is to speak to U.S. and Japanese forces at Yokota air base shortly after arriving in Japan on Sunday and looked to stress the importance of the alliance to regional security.

Ballistic missile tests by North Korea and its sixth and largest nuclear test, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, have exacerbated the most critical international challenge of Trump’s presidency.

Aerial drills conducted over South Korea by two U.S. strategic bombers have raised tensions in recent days.

In a display of golf diplomacy, Trump is to play a round of golf with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The two leaders also played together in Florida earlier this year.

Trump will also have a state call with the Imperial Family at Akasaka Palace during his visit. Abe and Trump will meet families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.

Joined by his wife Melania on part of the trip, Trump’s tour of Asia is the longest by an American president since George H.W. Bush in 1992. Besides Japan, he will visit South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Trump extended the trip by a day on Friday when he agreed to participate in a summit of East Asian nations in Manila.

His trip got off to a colorful start in Hawaii. He was taken by boat out to the USS Arizona Memorial, where lies the World War Two ship that was sunk by the Japanese during the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.

The Trumps tossed white flower petals into the waters at the memorial in honor of those who died at Pearl Harbor.

 

TRADE, NORTH KOREA

Trump’s trip is to be dominated by trade and how to muster more international pressure on North Korea to give up nuclear weapons.

“We’ll be talking about trade,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday. “We’ll be talking about obviously North Korea. We’ll be enlisting the help of a lot of people and countries and we’ll see what happens. But I think we’re going to have a very successful trip. There is a lot of good will.”

Trump has rattled some allies with his vow to “totally destroy” North Korea if it threatens the United States and his dismissal of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “rocket man” on a suicide mission.

White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, briefing reporters on Friday, defended Trump’s colorful language.

“What’s inflammatory is the North Korean regime and what they’re doing to threaten the world,” McMaster said.

Trump will seek a united front with the leaders of Japan and South Korea against North Korea before visiting Beijing to make the case to Chinese President Xi Jinping that he should do more to rein in Pyongyang.

Trade will factor heavily during Trump’s trip as he tries to persuade Asian allies to agree to trade policies more favorable to the United States.

A centerpiece of the trip will be a visit to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang, Vietnam, where he will deliver a speech in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, which is seen as offering a bulwark in response to expansionist Chinese policies.

 

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Paul Tait)

 

Battered by cyclone, Philippines suffers flooding, landslides

Battered by cyclone, Philippines suffers flooding, landslides

MANILA (Reuters) – A cyclone dumped heavy rains in the Philippine capital, Manila, and nearby provinces on Tuesday, causing widespread flooding and landslides in some areas that killed at least two people, the national disaster agency said.

Financial markets, government offices and schools were closed and port operations in some provinces were suspended, it said. Several flights were canceled.

The weather bureau said cyclone Maring, which was packing winds of up to 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph), made landfall in the morning over Mauban municipality in the eastern province of Quezon.

Romina Marasigan, a spokeswoman for the national disaster agency, said two teenaged brothers died from a landslide in Taytay, Rizal, 20 kilometers (12.43 miles) from Manila.

“Some residents unfortunately did not heed the advice of local officials to evacuate to safer grounds,” she said in a media briefing.

Marasigan warned of more flashfloods and landslides as rains were expected to continue later in the day, before the cyclone moves back over the sea early on Wednesday.

Twenty-two passengers were rescued from a bus stuck in floodwaters in Pitogo town in Quezon, she said.

Local officials ordered the evacuation of residents in some towns under floodwaters in Quezon, Laguna, Rizal and Batangas provinces, she said.

The weather bureau said it was also keeping an eye on typhoon Talim which was packing winds of up to 120 kph (75 mph), spotted moving toward the country’s northern tip and to Taiwan.

(Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz and Dondi Tawatao; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Magnitude 6.2 quake hits Philippine island of Luzon, jolts buildings

Students use their hands to cover their heads as they evacuate their school premises after an earthquake of magnitude 6.2 hit the northern island of Luzon and was felt in the Metro Manila, Philippines August 11, 2017, shaking buildings and forcing the evacuation of offices and schools. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

MANILA (Reuters) – An earthquake of magnitude 6.2 hit the Philippines’ northern island of Luzon on Friday and was felt in the capital Manila, shaking buildings and forcing the evacuation of offices and schools.

There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries in the quake, which the United States Geological Survey earlier measured at 6.6. The quake struck at 1:28 pm (0528 GMT) 10.7 km (6.6 miles) southeast of Nasugbu, in the province of Batangas, at a depth of 168 km (104 miles).

No tsunami warning was issued by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, which put the magnitude of the quake at 6.3, and said it expected aftershocks.

The Philippines is on the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire and experiences frequent earthquakes.

(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr. and Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Militants in Philippines city dug in for long siege

Soldiers stand guard along the main street of Mapandi village as government troops continue their assault on insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi City, Philippines June 2,

By Neil Jerome Morales and Tom Allard

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Islamist militants who seized the Philippines town of Marawi two weeks ago have stockpiled weapons and food in mosques, tunnels and basements to prepare for a long siege, officials said on Monday.

Among the several hundred militants linked to the Islamic State group are fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Morocco.

The battle for Marawi City has raised concerns that the ultra-radical jihadist group is building a regional base on the island of Mindanao, at the southern end of the Philippines.

Parrying questions on why the fighters had been able to resist the Philippine army for so long, senior officers said the main problem was that 500-600 civilians were still trapped in the urban heart of the town.

President Rodrigo Duterte said on Saturday that Marawi City would be fully liberated within three days, but on Monday officials were more circumspect and gave conflicting estimates of how many combatants were holding out.

Major General Carlito Galvez, head of the military command in Western Mindanao region, said as many as 200 fighters from the Maute militant group and others were still inside the town, and had prepared in advance for a long standoff.

“… the Maute, even if they fight two months, they will not starve here,” he told a news conference about a kilometer from the fighting.

“There are underground tunnels and basements that even a 500-pounder cannot destroy.”

He said that, days before seizing the city of 200,000 people, the militants had placed supplies in mosques and madrasas, or Islamic religious schools. Although the Philippines is largely Christian, Marawi City is overwhelmingly Muslim.

Fighting had erupted on May 23 after a bungled raid aimed at capturing Isnilon Hapilon, whom Islamic State proclaimed as its “emir” of Southeast Asia last year after he pledged allegiance to the group. The U.S. State Department has offered a bounty of up to $5 million for his arrest.

The military said on Monday that Duterte had offered a bounty of 10 million pesos ($200,000) to anyone who “neutralized” Hapilon, and 5 million pesos for each of the two leaders of the Maute group.

CIVILIANS TRAPPED

Brigadier General Restituto Padilla told a news conference that the militants now held less than 10 percent of the city, but that meeting Duterte’s deadline was not easy.

“Complications have been coming up: the continued use of civilians, potential hostages that may still be in their hands, the use of places of worship … and other factors that complicate the battle because of its urban terrain,” he said.

Reuters correspondents saw military helicopters flying combat sorties over Marawi City and smoke rising from parts of town amid machinegun fire.

A four-hour ceasefire to evacuate residents was marred by gunfire on Sunday, leaving hundreds of civilians stuck in their homes.

Padilla said that 1,467 civilians had been rescued so far, and that the 500-600 still trapped were low on food and water.

“There are places that we use as passageways to enemy territory – when we reach those areas, sometimes we see old people who are weak, cannot move on their own, because of lack of food,” he said.

A presidential spokesman said 120 militants had died in the battle, along with 38 security personnel. The authorities have put the civilian death toll at between 20 and 38.

President Duterte, who launched a ruthless ‘war on drugs’ after coming to power a year ago, has said that the Marawi fighters were financed by drug lords in Mindanao, an island the size of South Korea that has suffered for decades from banditry and insurgencies.

After the Marawi siege began, Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao, with support from allies in the Congress. On Monday, six opposition lawmakers challenged the move in a petition to the Supreme Court. ($1 = 49.4050 Philippine pesos)

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema in MANILA; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Kevin Liffey)