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U.S. role in typhoon relief boosts new military deal with Manila

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario (L) chats with U.S. Representatives Chris Smith and Al Green (R) after their news co
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario (L) chats with U.S. Representatives Chris Smith and Al Green (R) after their news co

By Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) - Emergency relief provided by U.S. troops in areas devastated by typhoon Haiyan in the central Philippines makes a strong case for the two allies to clinch a new military accord, Manila's foreign minister said on Monday.

The Philippines and the United States have been negotiating a new security agreement allowing wider and more prolonged access for the U.S. military at bases and other facilities in its former colony. It also provides for storage of equipment and supplies for humanitarian and maritime operations.

Last month, after four meetings, the talks stalled over legal and constitutional issues. Both sides, however, are committed to concluding a deal, a boost to the foreign policy of President Barack Obama's administration focusing on Asia and the Pacific.

"What has been demonstrated in the central Philippines as a result of this typhoon and the assistance provided in terms of relief, rescue operation... is the need for this framework agreement that we are working on with the United States," Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters.

"It accentuates one of the main purposes of the framework agreement, which is to make humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and response a very major aspect of the agreement."

The United States ran two military bases in the Philippines until the early 1990s, but abandoned them when the government refused to extend the necessary agreements.

The current talks are taking place as the Philippines is engaged in a long-running territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. Tensions have periodically sharpened, with vessels from each side keeping close watch on the other.

FIFTY SHIPS AND AIRCRAFT

The world's biggest-ever storm to make landfall struck the central Philippines on November 8, killing more than 5,200 people, displacing 4.4 million and destroying 24 billion pesos ($547 million) in crops and infrastructure.

Within days, the U.S. military sent some 50 ships and aircraft to help distribute food, water and other supplies and speed up delivery by reopening roads, ports and airports.

Washington has contributed nearly $52 million in relief and shelter materials, including about $30 million in direct aid from the U.S. Department of Defense, which sent the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and escort ships.

New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith, speaking to journalists after meeting del Rosario, said the storm "has brought all of us even closer together".

"We realized that this is a jewel of a friendship. We must preserve it at all cost. So I think... all other ongoing negotiations will all be given a positive boost as a direct result of this."

Smith said the United States was committed to long-term reconstruction, particularly housing. "There's a colossal need," he said. "We saw it first hand and that would be something that we take back because we want to be part of the solution."

The U.N. humanitarian office said life saving assistance is still urgently needed, particularly food, water and shelter due to limited access and lack of long-term supplies. The U.N. says it needs to raise $348 million to address those needs.

China's post-typhoon relief efforts were initially criticized, even by Chinese media, as inadequate, but Beijing last week sent a state of the art hospital ship to assist.

The head of China's relief mission said there could be no notion of diplomatic disputes in times of humanitarian crises.

"We know that our neighbor is suffering from the ... disaster. It is our duty to provide assistance in the fastest possible time," Rear Admiral Shen Hao said on Monday aboard the 14,000-tonne Peace Ark.

"In the eyes of the doctors and nurses there is no conflict, there is no problem. The only thing in their eyes is medical assistance."

($1 = 43.8650 Philippine pesos)

(Reporting By Manuel Mogato in MANILA and Roli Ng in TACLOBAN; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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