Manila – Even as Washington applauds the Philippines for the progress made in fighting terrorism, America’s top diplomats in the country continue to rile their hosts by offering unflattering assessments of the situation on the ground. A few weeks after one US diplomat described southern Mindanao as a “mecca for terrorists”, outgoing US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone has labelled Cotabato, a landlocked province in Mindanao, as a "doormat" for terrorists.
“Cotabato has become a gateway for investment and trade, and business of all legitimate source. But in recent months, we've also heard that it is being used as a doormat by some killers," Mr Ricciardone said during the Foreign Correspondents' Association of the Philippines press conference in Makati City on May 11.
He was explaining the US decision to suspend a road project that would traverse Cotabato City.
“We don't want to build a road that's going to make it easier for bombers to sneak in and out in the dead of night and elude the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” said Mr Ricciardone, whose three-year tour of duty ended on May 13.
As expected, his comments drew swift denials from the Philippine side. Lt-Col Buenaventura Pascual, the Armed Forces’ public information chief, said the military was well aware of all the entry points along the Cotabato shoreline and had stationed troops there.
"It is assured that no entry has been reported in recent years," Lt-Col Pascual said.
President Gloria Arroyo asked for evidence. "The prudent thing I think is to get more details - not for me but for my intelligence people - from the US intelligence people to indeed see if there's some kernel of truth to this allegation," she said.
Two legislators from Mindanao suggested that the Americans were making such disparaging statements because they wanted more joint military exercises in the region. One of them, Mr Joel Virador, said Mr Ricciardone’s statement was “no more than a tall tale to justify further armed intervention”.
"We have the ability to police our own territory and we do not need to be repeatedly reminded of any fabricated terrorist activities in Mindanao, especially if the agenda is for the US to advance its economic and political interests," he added.
* Philippines demands proof suspended US aid paving "terror road" (The Philippine Star, May 14)
* Military: Cotabato no terror 'doormat' (Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 13)
* Ricciardone: Cotabato doormat for terrorists (Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 12)