By Alito L. Malinao
MANILA, Jan. 22 (Xinhua) -- The announcement by the Philippine government that it would seek reparation for the damage caused by the grounding of a U.S. Navy minesweeper in southern Philippines has not abated anti-American criticisms spawned by the incident.
On Monday, Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Abaya said that the Philippine government would file a claim for damages by the U.S. minesweeper USS Guardian, but he did not mention any amount.
When asked if the U.S. government has given assurance that it would compensate the Philippines for the damage done to the Tubbataha Reefs, a marine protected area in Palawan, Abaya merely said, "I assume that as a responsible nation and as an ally of the Philippines, if goes without saying."
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the U.S. Navy warship that ran aground on the Tubbataha Reefs on Jan. 17 did not coordinate with local authorities about its passage.
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park lies at the center of the Sulu Sea. It protects almost 100,000 hectares of high-quality marine habitats containing three atolls and a large area of deep sea.
The protected area is at the heart of the Coral Triangle which is considered as the "global center of marine biodiversity" and home to at least 40 percent of the world's fish and 75 percent of the world's corrals. It is also known as one of the world's best diving spots.
Jose Lorenzo Tan, WWF-Philippines chief executive office, said what the USS Guardian has done was contrary to the protocol among foreign and local ships crossing the waters near the World Heritage Site in the Sulu Sea.
Reports quoted Angelique Songco, head of the Tubbataha Management Office, as saying that the U.S. warship entered Philippine waters without a permit in violation of Republic Act No. 10067, or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009.
Two Philippine senators have also lashed the U.S. ship for its incursion into Philippine waters saying that they would recommend the holding of a Senate inquiry into the incident.
Senator Francis Escudero, chairman of the Senate committee on environment and natural resources, said the proposed probe could " uncover possible violations of Philippine and international laws."
Escudero said the Philippines should demand not only indemnity for the damage but also restoration costs. "Reefs are grown over centuries, the extent of the damage and what it will leave cannot be quantified in any amount," he said.
Senator Loren Legarda, chairman of the Senate committee on foreign relations, cited the failure of the U.S. authorities to coordinate the movement and route of the USS Guardian while in Philippine waters.
Legarda said that the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) signed by both countries "is not a free pass so U.S. ships and military personnel can do as they wish in our country, including the destruction of the environment and the protected sites in our country."
A lawmaker from the province of Palawan where the Tubbataha Reefs are located also accused the U.S. navy warship of "willfully trespassing" on Philippine territory.
In a statement, Palawan Rep. Antonio Alvarez said the USS Guardian deliberately embarked on a "voyage of an intruder," causing it to be stuck in the protected marine park.
"The Guardian is a minesweeper, meaning it can find mines as small as a ping-pong ball.. How can it miss an atoll that is five kilometers by three kilometers in size?" Alvarez said, adding that it boggles the mind on how a state-of-the-art ship with satellite- aided navigation and provided with the latest maps was unable to find its way to the sea.
Teodoro Casino, another lawmaker, also called for an inquiry in the House of Representatives on the incident. "The Tubbataha Reef atolls are invaluable to the health and productivity of the entire marine ecosystem in the Sulu Sea and will directly affect the lives of the fisherfolk and nearby communities," he said in a statement.
The USS Guardian, among U.S. naval assets deployed in Sasebo, Japan, arrived in the Philippines early last week and docked at the former American naval base in Subic Bay, some 100 kilometers north of Manila, for a routine refueling, resupply and rest and recreation stop.
The ship, manned by some 80 sailors, including Filipino- Americans, also made a brief visit to Puerto Princesa, the capital of the island province of Palawan, before heading off to its next port of call.
The militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Nationalist Alliance) said that the presence of the U.S. minesweeper in Philippine waters "again raises questions regarding U.S. military presence in the country" under the VFA.
"It appears that the country is a de facto outpost for refueling, supply and rest and recreation, much like during the time of U.S. bases, but minus the formality of a treaty," Renato Reyes Jr., the alliance secretary general, said.
The Philippines dismantled all U.S. military facilities in 1991 but maintains a standing Mutual Defense Treaty for six decades with the United States, the country's main ally.
Last year, U.S. ships made 197 port calls in the Philippines, while some 444 American aircraft were cleared for landing in the country's airports, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.