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Philippine defence chief visits disputed Spratly island
By Ted ALJIBE
Pag-Asa, Philippines (AFP) April 21, 2017


Philippines' Duterte tours Russian warship
Manila (AFP) April 21, 2017 - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte toured a visiting Russian warship on Friday for the second time in barely four months as he highlighted his growing closeness to Moscow.

"The Russians are with me, I shall not be afraid," Duterte was quoted as saying during a visit to the Russian guided missile cruiser 'Varyag' which is on a port visit to Manila.

Duterte toured the ship, posing for pictures with Russian sailors and in front of the vessel's huge missile-launchers, on what was the fourth ever port call by a Russian naval ship to the Philippines.

Since taking office in June, Duterte -- who describes himself as a socialist -- has been distancing himself from the Philippines' traditional ally, the United States and moving closer to its rivals, China and Russia.

In an indication of these closer ties, two Russian ships led by the submarine-hunter Admiral Tributs, made a "goodwill visit" to Manila in January, when Duterte also toured the Russian vessel.

Duterte has said he plans to purchase military equipment from Russia rather than the United States and is due to visit in May to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Earlier, Philippine navy spokesman Captain Lued Lincuna said the visit of the Russians was "a manifestation of good relations with them, to enhance our maritime cooperation," he told reporters.

Captain Leo Miado, one of the Philippine naval officers overseeing the visit, said sailors from the two countries would engage in training, adding "we can view the advanced equipment of the Russian navy in line with our modernisation efforts."

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana flew to a disputed South China Sea island on Friday, brushing off a challenge by the Chinese military while asserting Manila's territorial claim to the strategic region.

"This is just a normal visit within our territory, which we believe and we know is (our) territory," the minister told reporters who accompanied him on the brief trip.

China claims most of the South China Sea, including Thitu island which Lorenzana visited and the Philippines calls Pag-asa island.

In recent years Beijing has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands, including on Subi Reef about 26 kilometres (14 nautical miles) from Thitu, which can house military facilities.

Lorenzana said construction would start "within the next few weeks" for a quay on Thitu where construction materials will be landed for repairs on an existing airstrip on the largest of nine Philippine-garrisoned outcrops in the Spratly archipelago.

Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the Spratlys, either wholly or in part.

As the military transport plane bearing Lorenzana and local officials of Palawan island, the largest land mass close to the Spratlys, prepared to land, the minister said the pilots received a warning from Chinese forces on Subi.

He said the pilots were warned the aircraft was illegally entering Chinese territory, a routine for all Philippine aircraft landing on the Thitu airstrip since China reclaimed Subi. He said his pilots disregarded the warning.

"That's their protocol. That's procedural. We also reply that we are flying over Philippine territory," he said.

Lorenzana visited Thitu more than a week after President Rodrigo Duterte pulled back from an announcement to visit the island on June 12 and raise the Philippine flag there.

Duterte said later he had called off the trip "because we value our friendship" with Beijing.

Reversing the course set by predecessor Benigno Aquino, Duterte has sought to improve his nation's relations with Beijing by adopting a non-confrontational approach over their competing claims in the strategically vital waters believed to sit atop huge oil and gas reserves.

Lorenzana however said Duterte was not backing down from his orders for the military to reinforce its installations in the Spratlys, and has alloted 1.6 billion pesos ($32.16 million) for these.

He said both China and Vietnam have long been fortifying their own garrisons on nearby outcrops.

"We all know that China is the most powerful country in our neighbourhood, they are economically powerful, also militarily," Lorenzana said.

"We are trying manage the issue and talk to them... settle this dispute in the South China Sea."

As Lorenzana flew to Thitu, the Philippine coast guard announced a group of Filipino fishermen have accused China's coast guard of shooting at their vessel in another section of the Spratlys.

Philippine officials said they were investigating the reported attack on the Princess Johann boat, which the crew said occurred near the Chinese side of the Union Banks atoll on March 27.

There were no casualties during the incident, authorities added.

"(Princess Johann) was reportedly fired upon seven times by a Chinese speedboat with seven Chinese coast guards on board," a Philippine Coast Guard statement said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters at a regular briefing that Beijing had "no information" on the matter.

If confirmed, the incident would be the first hostile episode in nearly a year involving the two countries, which have seen warming relations since Duterte came to power.

SUPERPOWERS
Pentagon chief pledges support for Egypt's Sisi
Cairo (AFP) April 20, 2017
US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and top brass in Cairo on Thursday, pledging support for the American ally on his first regional tour. The brief visit, with Mattis later setting off to Israel, came after Sisi hit it off with Trump during a White House meeting earlier this month. Sisi's visit marked a shift in relations after Trump's predec ... read more

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