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U.S. and Philippines plan military drills near disputed areas

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 6:44 a.m. HST, Mar 7, 2012


MANILA, Philippines >> Thousands of American and Filipino troops will hold annual combat exercises in a western province where China, the Philippines and four other Asian neighbors have been locked in long-simmering territorial disputes, officials said Wednesday.

This year's drills will be held from April 16-27 in Palawan, which faces the South China Sea and lies about 510 miles (820 kilometers) southwest of Manila.

Tensions have grown in recent years in the area because of rival territorial claims by the Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. China has protested military exercises involving U.S. forces near the contested region.

About 4,500 American military personnel and 2,300 Filipino counterparts will join next month's exercises, the U.S. Embassy said, adding that observers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and "partner nations" have been invited.

Philippine officials said the Balikatan, or "shoulder-to-shoulder," drills aim to ensure that the U.S. and the Philippines, longtime defense-treaty allies, can cooperate smoothly during emergencies and disasters. The drills promote regional stability and should not antagonize any country, Philippine military officials said.

Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban said the drills would include a mock exercise involving the retaking by troops of an oil rig seized by terrorists off the province's western coast.

The drills will be held well within the country's territorial waters and should not be a concern to China or any claimant country involved in the territorial disputes, Sabban said.

The Chinese embassy did not immediately comment on the planned exercises.

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