Legal cloud over Philippine-U.S. war games
MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- As U.S. special forces, on a joint training exercise with local troops, move deeper into Muslim guerrilla territory in the southern Philippines, legal maneuvers continue to seek a temporary halt to the war games.
A new complaint filed Wednesday by the former president of the country's largest lawyers' group, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, urges the Philippine Supreme Court to set a hearing on an earlier petition.
That petition, made February 1, sought to temporary stop the military exercises because they allegedly violated the Philippine Constitution.
Currently, about 80 special forces troops have been deployed to the island of Basilan where more than 6,000 Philippine troops have been fighting Abu Sayyaf guerrillas for months.
The U.S. soldiers will spread out with various Philippine military detachments in a training capacity.
It is the biggest expansion of Washington's war against terrorism since the Afghanistan campaign.
The Supreme Court had given the government 10 days from February 5 to respond to the first petition, but the government has instead asked the high court for more time to answer the allegations.
"A delaying tactic is apparent," the petitioner, attorney Arthur Lim, told CNN.
"The government intends to render my previous petition moot and academic," Lim added, citing that war games have been going on for a week.
The Supreme Court should have stated a "non-extendible period" for the government's response to the petition, Lim said.
The Office of the Solicitor General has asked the Supreme Court to extend to March 4 the deadline for its response to the first petition to stop the war games.
Although Lim said that the government's request is "legally not wrong," he added that the "more than 100 lawyers at the OSG should have been able to meet the original deadline."
Philippine and U.S. troops officially started the war games last Friday, days after guidelines for their conduct were signed.
But critics say the controversial guidelines for the joint military exercises, also known as the terms of reference (TOR), contain gray areas that would allow U.S. troops to remain in the country for longer than the prescribed six-month period which ends in July.
The original draft of the TOR states that the war games "shall be conducted and completed within a period of not more than six months, with the projected participation of 660 US personnel and 3,800 Philippine troops. "
The Chief of Staff, AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines), shall direct the Exercise Co-Directors to wind up the Exercise and other activities and the withdrawal of US forces within the six months Exercise period."
However, the entire phrase regarding the withdrawal of US troops was deleted in the final draft.
The final draft states that "The Chief of Staff, AFP, shall direct the Exercise Co-Directors to wind up and terminate the Exercise and other activities within the six months Exercise period."
"Why was this important section deleted in the final TOR? Does this mean that the US troops can stay in the country even after the Balikatans completion?" asked Renato Reyes Jr., spokesman of the militant group Bayan (New Patriotic Alliance).
Critics say another gray area in the TOR could allow U.S. troops to conduct a rescue mission for two Americans who have been held hostage by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas for more than eight months.
Although the TOR explicitly states that U.S. troops will not engage in combat operations, they are allowed to use their arms "without prejudice to their right of self defense."
The U.S. government has linked the Abu Sayyaf to Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network, on evidence last uncovered in 1995.
The Abu Sayyaf are suspected for three simultaneous explosions in southern Zamboanga City and the guerrilla stronghold of Sulu, when the war games started.
The Philippine government recently decided to drum up support for the war games by releasing a video of Abu Sayyaf guerrillas beheadings captive soldiers.
Senators and other government critics said the video was gory and should have been edited for general viewing.
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