Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - US Secretary of State John Kerry has restated his government's regrets over the grounding of a US Navy warship on the protected Tubbataha Reefs and assured the Philippines of full cooperation in the investigation of the incident.
Kerry has also assured the Philippines of full compensation for the damage caused by the grounding of the USS Guardian on the marine sanctuary in a remote corner of the Sulu Sea.
The new US secretary of state gave the assurances to the Philippines during his meeting with Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario in Washington on Tuesday.
Del Rosario also assured the Filipino public that "every effort will be made to obtain proper compensation" for the damage to Tubbataha, initially estimated to be at around 4,000 square metres.
The two countries are conducting separate investigations of the incident. A team of investigators from the Philippine Coast Guard is flying to Japan "to examine documentary and physical evidence as well as meet with the US investigating team," Del Rosario said.
But Guardian's crewmen have refused to face Filipino investigators, officials said earlier.
Under the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009, fines for damage to the reefs could reach up to US$300 for every square metre plus another $300 for every square metre for rehabilitation.
If the estimated 4,000 square metres of damaged reef is correct, the US Navy is facing a fine of $5 million, or 200 million pesos, in the Philippines.
The US government has said it will pay full compensation and help finance the rehabilitation of Tubbataha, world-famous for its magnificent corals and marine life and, according to international divers, rivals Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
Ship out after 10 weeks
The Guardian ran aground on Tubbataha on January 17. To avoid further damage to the reef, the US Navy hired a Singapore-based salvor company to cut up the 68-metre, 1,600-ton minesweeper and take the parts to a US naval base in Sasebo, Japan. After 10 weeks, the salvage operation was completed on Saturday.
"With the ship off the reef, our teams will be carrying out a joint assessment of the damage, after which more detailed discussions will be held on the appropriate as well as timely compensation," Del Rosario said.
He said both the Philippine and US governments were "thankful that in removing the USS Guardian, no further damage was done to the reef."
"We both agreed that it is important to understand what happened and to take the necessary navigational safety measures to protect the reef and that would prevent other ships from grounding there," he said.
'Classic US double-talk'
The joint damage assessment involving Philippine and US agencies will start on April 8, Del Rosario added.
The grounding has raised a howl among concerned groups in the Philippines, which pressed US accountability and criticised the government for allowing the ship's crew to return to their base in Japan without an investigation.
The militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) on Wednesday said Kerry's statements were "classic Washington double-talk."
Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes said Philippine investigators could not even interview the crew of the Guardian.
"Our investigation will only go so far as the US Navy wants it to. It is utterly shameful," Reyes said.
Ties that bind
Del Rosario said the Philippine and US governments agreed that the incident should not affect long-standing ties between the two countries.
"We also both agreed that we would not let this incident delay or derail our efforts to deepen our security cooperation, including plans to increase the rotational presence of US forces in the Philippines to help build the defence capacity and increase the maritime domain awareness of the Philippines," Del Rosario said.
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