Surveillance flights over shoal to resume once weather improves, says defense chief
MANILA, Philippines—Bad weather is preventing military aircraft from conducting surveillance flights over Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said on Friday.
He said the surveillance flights over the shoal, which is well within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone but which China is contesting, would resume once the weather disturbance there eases.
“We’ve been doing that, we do that (surveillance flights). But they can’t fly right now because the weather is not good,” Gazmin told reporters during the Philippine Air Force’s Air Power Symposium on Friday.
“We fly over the area. That’s ours,” he stressed.
President Benigno Aquino last Friday ordered the pull out of the Coast Guard vessel and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources research vessel from the shoal due to bad weather.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said China was also expected to pull out its maritime ships and fishing vessels at the shoal to end the standoff, but it did not.
Gazmin on Thursday said he was in favor of sending the country’s maritime enforcement vessels back to the shoal.
“Why not? The Chinese are not leaving. We have to go back,” he said, adding that if the Philippines did not station its ships in Panatag, the Chinese may invoke occupancy and use it as basis for their claim.
Gazmin, however, said they were leaving it up to the Department of Foreign Affairs to make the official statements about the territorial dispute with China.
Panatag Shoal, also known as Bajo De Masinloc during the Spanish colonial times, is only 124 nautical miles from Masinloc, Zambales province.
A traditional fishing area for Filipino fishermen, the shoal was also used by Filipino and American troops for bombing run exercises when the US still maintained air and naval bases in the country.
Gazmin said they did not know about the alleged fly-by last week of an unidentified aircraft, suspected to be Chinese, over the Panatag Shoal.
“As a matter of fact we have no such report. Maybe what they saw was our aircraft,” he said.
Lieutenant General Lauro Catalino Dela Cruz, Air Force commanding general, said any surveillance flight done in the area is in support to the Coast Guard’s maritime law enforcement duties.
“The President was very specific that it’s the Coast Guard (which will man the shoal) so that there will be no impression that the military is getting involved. It’s all Coast Guard,” Dela Cruz stressed.
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