The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Thursday said it respected the US Navy’s decision to relieve four officers after one of its vessels damaged the Tubbataha Reefs but stressed that Manila needed to conduct its own probe of the incident.
“This is apart from our own independent investigation on the grounding of the vessel being conducted by the maritime casualty investigation team. Our independent investigation team is ongoing and will come up with its own results,” Assistant Secretary and DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez told a press briefing.
Hernandez was reacting to an announcement by the US Pacific Fleet that four officers of the minesweeper USS Guardian had been relieved of their duties and reassigned in the wake of the incident.
The Pacific Fleet said in a statement on Wednesday that initial findings indicated the four sailors failed to adhere to standard navigation procedures when the vessel ran aground on the reefs on Jan. 17.
The four were the commanding officer, the executive officer and navigator, the assistant navigator and the officer on the deck.
Workers recently finished dismantling and removing the minesweeper from the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park.
The park’s superintendent has said the grounding damaged about 4,000 square meters of the reef.
The United States could face a fine of more than $2 million for the damage.
Crew refuse interviews
The incident happened while the Guardian was sailing the Sulu Sea en route to its next stop. It had just visited the Philippines on a routine port call.
The US has agreed to cooperate in the Philippines’ own probe but the Guardian’s crewmen have refused to take part in face-to-face interviews with Filipino investigators.
A Philippine Coast Guard investigating team is set to fly to a US military base in Japan to meet with their counterpart American investigators.
Joint Philippine-US salvage crews completed removing the ship off the marine sanctuary’s south atoll on Friday. A more extensive marine ecological assessment is expected to begin soon.
Out of PH jurisdiction
The militant umbrella group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), among the groups pressing for US accountability, found the sacking of the four sailors “inadequate” and said the US personnel should be held liable under Philippine law.
“The move may be seen as a form of public appeasement rather than an act to exact full accountability. The relief comes just a day before the kickoff of the Balikatan war games in the Philippines and may be intended to gain the US some positive media mileage,” Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr. said.
The PH-US Balikatan Exercise, which this year focuses on drills in humanitarian assistance and disaster response, is scheduled to begin Friday.
“What is true now is that the US has limited the extent of the Philippine government’s own investigation, first by bringing the crew of the USS Guardian out of Philippine jurisdiction and by refusing actual interviews of the crew of the ship by Philippine investigators,” Reyes said.
“The Philippine government is now in a humiliating situation where it can only proceed with the probe to the extent that the US wants it to.”
In a meeting with Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario in Washington on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated Washington’s regrets over the incident and vowed to fully compensate the Philippines for the damages on Tubbataha Reefs, a Unesco World Heritage site.