THE commander of the United States Pacific Fleet affirmed the US Navy’s strong partnership with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Wednesday following a four-day visit to Manila.
Admiral Scott Swift met with Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Peter Cayetano, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Eduardo Año, and the Philippine Navy flag officer in command, Vice Admiral Ronald Mercado.
Swift stressed the US Pacific Fleet’s commitment to addressing “shared regional security concerns” including counterterrorism and piracy, while highlighting the strong defense ties between the US and the Philippines.
“The Philippine Navy is a valued and enduring ally of the US Navy and a close partner of the Pacific Fleet,” said Swift in a statement.
“I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to visit with senior government and military leaders here in Manila. We continue to build on the strong relationship we have and to reaffirm our commitment to working together to face shared challenges,” he added.
The long-standing alliance between the Philippines and the United States has contributed to peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region for more than 70 years, the US Embassy said in a statement.
The US and the Philippines inked a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951 and the Visiting Forces Agreement in 1998. Three years ago, the two countries signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement allowing the rotational presence of American troops in some military bases in the country.
As part of the security partnership, the United States supports the Philippines in its efforts to strengthen national defense, and improve its ability to respond to natural disasters, terror threats, piracy, and other transnational crimes.
LONDON: At least six people were confirmed killed Wednesday when a massive fire tore through a London apartment block in the middle of the night, with witnesses reporting terrified people had leapt from the 24-storey tower.
Parents wrapped wet towels around their children as they desperately tried to escape from the Grenfell Tower, with at least one person seen waving a piece of white cloth from an upper floor as flames ravaged the building.
“I can confirm six fatalities at this time but this figure is likely to rise during what will be a complex recovery operation over a number of days,” said police commander Stuart Cundy, describing the fire as “truly shocking.” The ambulance service said 50 people had been hospitalized.
The alarm was raised just before 1 a.m. (0000 GMT) and within an hour flames had engulfed the entire block. Residents claimed the fire was spreading on the exterior of the tower, which had been covered in cladding in a major refurbishment completed last year.
More than 10 hours on, flames could still be seen inside the charred building as thick, black smoke filled the sky.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said firefighters were only able to reach the 12th floor at the height of the blaze.
“A lot of people are unaccounted for,” he told Sky News television.
Nick Paget-Brown, leader of the Kensington and Chelsea local authority, said “several hundred” people would have been inside the block.
London Fire Brigade chief Dany Cotton said the building’s structure was stable enough for fire crews to work inside.
“We rescued a large number of people from inside the building very early on,” she said, adding firefighters had managed to reach the 19th and 20th floors.
“We are making steady progress.”
Large pieces of debris could be seen falling from the building, a 1970s local authority-built block in the working-class north Kensington area.
Several Filipinos were among those injured in the fire, according to the Philippine Embassy in the United Kingdom.
Consul General Senen Mangalile said at least 10 Filipinos were injured and were given immediate medical aid. They were brought to an evacuation center at Saint Claire Chapel while some were accommodated at the nearby Saint Clement’s Church, Saint Francis of Assisi Church and the Portobello Rugby Club.
“The Embassy has confirmed that Filipinos are among those injured and affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower,” the embassy said on Facebook, without disclosing names.
Three thousand Filipinos livE in Kensington and Chelsea area, the embassy said.
‘I just ran’
Witnesses said they heard screaming from the upper floors as the flames raced up the tower.
“I saw people jumping out of their windows, the building was literally on fire, the ambulances, the police. It was horrendous,” Khadejah Miller, who was evacuated from her home nearby, told AFP.
Adi Estu, 32, who was in her pajamas and a coat, said: “I saw people flashing their lights for help, families flashing their mobile phones like a torch. But the smoke covered them and then the fire destroyed everything. “We saw them dying. How can you forget that?”
Hanan Wahabi, 39, said she escaped with her husband, 16-year-old son, and eight-year-old daughter, but feared for her brother and his family who live on the 21st floor.
“Last time I saw him they were waving out of the window, his wife and children,” she said, sitting outside a community center that is serving as a hub for displaced residents.
Wahabi’s husband Salah Chebiouni, 45, said he was in the kitchen when “I saw fire outside my window.” “The fire was on the outside, not the inside,” he said.
Frantic families attempted to call their loved ones, fearing they could be stuck inside, and were being directed by police to a nearby restaurant where some of the injured were being treated.
The fire brigade said 40 fire engines and more than 200 firefighters had been working on the blaze.
Fire risk warning
The apartment block was built in 1974, but had recently undergone a major refurbishment, including a new heating and hot water system and new cladding on the outside.
The refurbishment cost £8.7 million ($11 million, 9.9 million euros) and was completed in May 2016. Local residents had warned a year ago about a potential fire risk caused by rubbish being allowed to accumulate during the improvement works.
“The potential for a fire to break out in the communal area on the walkway does not bear thinking about as residents would be trapped in the building with no way out,” read a blog post by the Grenfell Action Group. Some residents said the official advice was that people should stay inside in the event of a fire.
Mayor Khan said the advice would be looked into.
“We can’t have a situation (where) people’s safety is put at risk because of bad advice being given,” he told the BBC.
Angus Law, from the Center for Fire Safety Engineering at Edinburgh University, said the blaze seemingly had similarities with other recent fires worldwide.
“It appears that the external cladding has significantly contributed to the spread of fire,” he said.
He said regulations for tall buildings were intended to prevent the spread of fire, so if it does occur, “the consequences are often catastrophic.”
The fire comes 11 days after eight people were killed in a terror attack on London Bridge and the nearby Borough Market.
THE negligence of the police during the Resorts World Manila tragedy is inexcusable because they could have saved at least 37 lives by just accessing Facebook live videos of the lone gunman on June 2.
House Majority Floor Leader Rodolfo Fariñas of Ilocos Norte said the police could have searched Facebook for live videos of the June 2 incident wherein a lone gunman stormed the casino complex and set baccarat tables, slot machines, television screens and others on fire, producing a thick smoke that suffocated 37 guests and employees to death.
The gunman was identified as Jessie Carlos, a former government employee in heavy debt because of gambling.
Resorts World officials have testified in the congressional probe that the people who died in the incident were trapped inside the burning parts of the casino because they holed up in a pantry and a comfort room over the mistaken fear of being shot by multiple gunmen from extremist group Islamic State.
“I have a video here, a guy on Facebook Live. He was [taking]a video of the whole incident from the time it started. In the video, the people were making their way out of Resorts World were already saying that there is a lone gunman. The police arrived at 12:30 a.m. or almost 30 minutes after the gunman came. The whole world is already watching the incident [on Facebook Live]at that point,” Fariñas said.
“You could have saved the 37 who died, and the police could have easily found out that there is only one gunman earlier if only you coordinated your actions [with Resorts World management],” Fariñas added.
The congressional inquiry earlier revealed that the police found out that there was only one assailant around 3:30 a.m. when Resorts World finally told the police there is a functioning and backup closed-circuit television (CCTV) monitoring room in the nearby Remington Hotel.
Carlos’ charred remains were found later in Room 510 of Maxims Hotel, where the attacker was said to have taken his own life by setting himself on fire and shooting his mouth.
Private meeting ‘unethical’
Fariñas also slammed Resorts World security chief Armeen Gomez for seeking a private meeting ahead of the second day of the congressional probe on the tragedy on Wednesday.
He said an 8:30 a.m. meeting was requested by former Land Transportation and Franchising and Regulation Board chairman Winston Ginez, Gomez’s lawyer, through a text message from Parañaque Rep. Gus Tambunting, House Games and Amusements panel chairman.
Tambunting is one of the House leaders spearheading the probe. The others are House public order and safety chairman Romeo Acop of Antipolo and House tourism panel chief Lucy Torres-Gomez of Leyte.
“My reply to such text message was ‘no.’ Lawyers can instead approach us during hearings, just like how lawyers approach the bench of court justices during a case hearing,” Fariñas said.
“The purpose of this (lawyers approaching the bench in public) is for the people to know the truth. “It is unethical to meet in private outside the hearing,” he added.
Fariñas also read portions of Ginez’s letter, which stated: “In behalf of my client Armeen Gomez we humbly request an advance audience with your honors.”
“Do not do that because it is not allowed. This should serve as a warning,” Fariñas stressed.
Lawmakers made mincemeat of Gomez in last week’s hearing, peppering the employee with credibility questions and forcing him to admit that he was a Philippine Military Academy dropout who did not have a college degree.
Gomez also admitted that Resorts World did not have a crisis plan for simultaneous emergencies such as what happened on June 2.
Chairman summoned In addition, Fariñas moved to subpoena David Chua Ming Huat, the Malaysian chairman of Traveller’s Hotel Group, Inc. that owns Resorts World.
Resorts World President Kingston Sian reported to lawmakers that Chua left the country before Congress sent its letter of invitation to the inquiry.
“Under the law, they are the ones liable for the acts of the corporation, not the stockholders. A corporation has a personality separate and distinct from its stockholders,” Fariñas said.
“If he will not appear, what comes after that is a warrant of arrest,” he added.
Chua, president of cruise firm Genting Hong Kong, is said to own 30 percent of Resorts World Manila.
THE influential Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has thrown its support behind the move of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to seek the closure of social media accounts being used for propaganda by the terrorists who attacked Marawi City.
Fr. Jerome Secillano, executive secretary of the CBCP Permanent Committee on Public Affaris, on Wednesday said the closure of Facebook accounts is not a curtailment of the freedom of expression if these violate the social media platform’s terms and conditions.
Secillano said the use of social media in spreading propaganda about rebellion and terrorism runs counter to the tenets of freedom of information, because it causes more harm than good to the people.
“Facebook has its own internal regulations. Those who subscribe to this social networking tool should subject themselves to these regulations. Fake news and jihad propaganda should not be allowed to proliferate. Those who do it should even be charged for perjury or inciting to rebellion,” Secillano said in an interview with the Church-run Radyo Veritas.
He added: “Restriction to freedom of expression should not even be an issue in this regard. It’s a choice between public good vs. private good. May a government or institution allow an individual to pose threat or harm to the public just because he wants to do it? No! Because that freedom is not and cannot be absolute especially if in the exercise of it, the public good is jeopardized.”
Earlier, San Jose Bishop Roberto Mallari, chairman of the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Catechesis and Catholic Education, expressed the same view.
Mallari said the closure of Facebook accounts promoting terrorism is a step forward to peace.
“Instead of promoting violence we have to promote peace, love. Loving our fellowmen, peace for everyone are what we should promote instead,” Mallari added.
He also called on the youth, which he called “digital experts,” to lead the campaign on the proper use of social media.
The AFP has asked Facebook to close down 63 accounts said to be spreading propaganda and misinformation about the ongoing military offensive in Marawi City.
GOVERNMENT forces are getting closer to ending the offensive against terrorists occupying Marawi City, but would no longer set deadlines, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said on Wednesday.
AFP public affairs chief Col. Edgard Arevalo told reporters military forces, along with the Philippine National Police (PNP), were “nearing the conclusion” of fighting in the Islamic City.
“We are in the final stage of our operations in Marawi. The challenges we have been facing were hard,” Arevalo said.
Fighting between government forces and the Maute terrorist group is on its 24th day, since the bandits launched attacks in Marawi City on May 22. It prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in the whole island of Mindanao on May 23.
On Tuesday, the Western Mindanao Command said four barangay (villages) were still being controlled by the Maute in Marawi City. The command’s chief, Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, said Maute snipers have been hiding within high-rise buildings.
Arevalo said on Wednesday the military was able to recover eight high-rise buildings on Tuesday.
“What is important here is that we reclaimed one of the buildings that was considered as a high-rise establishment that overlooks the city, and it was previously nested by [Maute] snipers. So this is actually an improvement,” he said.
Arevalo stressed that the Maute group has been “weakening,” noting that the number of its fighters have started to decrease.
“We are not going to take this lightly. We cannot be imprudent. We have to be very careful with our actions since the Maute still have civilians with them and they were all taken as hostages,” he said.
The military is looking to accomplish three main objectives: the neutralization of terrorists, rescue of civilians, and setting the conditions for reconstruction and rehabilitation of Marawi City.
“We are now looking at the third option because we see that we are nearing the conclusion of this conflict,” he said. Dempsey Reyes
No more deadlines
AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr. on Wednesday said the military would no longer set a deadline for the liberation of Marawi City as it promised not to bomb mosques and masjids (central mosques) that Maute terrorists were using as hiding places.
During the “Mindanao Hour” news briefing in Malacañang, Padilla said the military turned down the option of targeting mosques in surgical air strikes.
“For now, we will not set deadlines. We will ensure that we will be able to clear it of any armed element that still exists, and it may take some time,” Padilla told reporters.
“We categorically state that we have not bombed and will not bomb mosques in Marawi. The Armed Forces leadership is firm in its commitment to use other options that would flush out this Maute/Daesh-inspired group from these places of worship that they have converted into machine gun and sniper nests, defensive positions, and arsenals for their war activities,” he added.
On Tuesday, Army 1st Infantry Division spokesman Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera said the AFP was compelled to launch surgical strikes on places of worship that have been turned into the extremists’ staging areas.
Herrera told reporters in Marawi City that mosques would be bombed “in order to save lives and in order to protect our troops.”
The AFP on Wednesday denied launching attacks on Muslims’ houses of worship.
“The AFP assures our Muslim brothers and Islamic faithful that it will not go down to the level of these terrorists who desecrate places of worship to lure government security forces into responding to their violent activities in a similar manner,” Padilla said.
“We are confident that through other options available to the Armed Forces, we will be able to retake the remaining portion of Marawi occupied by these terrorists, neutralize the remaining members who continue to hold out and begin the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the city,” he added.
The AFP earlier set June 2 as its deadline to free Marawi of armed elements, but it failed to meet its self-imposed deadline. The military again set June 12, Independence Day, as a deadline to liberate Marawi City, but again failed to wipe out terrorists.
In the same news conference, Palace spokesman Ernesto Abella echoed AFP chief-of-staff General Eduardo Año who said state forces respect places of worship and other cultural and heritage sites, thus “will do everything possible to protect and preserve these places.”
Proposed P10-B budget welcomed
Malacañang on Wednesday welcomed a proposal for an additional P10-billion budget to bankroll the rebuilding efforts in war-torn Marawi City.
Abella said the “Tindeg Marawi” bill filed in Congress would complement the planned executive order that would allot another P10 billion to help Marawi recover from the armed conflict.
“In anticipation of the rehabilitation of Marawi, Congress has proposed a P10-billion supplemental budget to rebuild Marawi through House Bill 5874 or the Tindeg Marawi Bill,” Abella told reporters.
The bill filed by Kabayan Rep. Harry Roque proposes to set aside funds for humanitarian aid to the victims of the Marawi conflict, and the rehabilitation of infrastructure, business establishments and property.
The rehabilitation funds will be divided among the Department of National Defense, the Department of Education, the Department of Public Works and Highways, the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and the National Housing Authority.
Earlier, Malacañang announced it would soon implement a P10-billion “Bangon Marawi” rehabilitation project.
“The EO (executive order) for ‘Bangon Marawi’ is awaiting President Duterte’s signature,” Abella told state-run radio station over the weekend. “The proposed package amounting to P10 billion, as promised by the President, will be a multi-agency effort.”
Padilla, the AFP spokesman, said the government could not yet peg a definite figure for the cost of the damage in Marawi.
“We do not know yet. We will need professionals to estimate it but before that we need to clear the city first of all armed rebels,” Padilla told The Manila Times in a text message.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, in a separate text message, told The Times military engineers “have not made the survey as there are still pockets of resistance.”
“We start rebuilding after we have cleared the area of explosives,” Lorenzana said.
To expedite the clearing operations in Marawi City, Padilla said the military was not closing its doors on military assistance from other nations like China and Russia.
“The government and its armed forces is open to any help because it is a worldwide battle against terrorists,” he said.
Top security officials earlier confirmed that United States troops are assisting the Philippine military in its fight against the Maute group.
The US military aid, however, is only limited to technical assistance.
“Yes, we asked for their help. We requested them to stay there and provide us assistance because we don’t have such capability [to fight against terrorism alone],” Padilla said.
THE government is readying up to P10 billion in funding for the rebuilding of Marawi City, which has been devastated by clashes between state forces and the Islamic State-linked Maute group, Malacañang said on Saturday.
In a radio interview, Palace spokesman Ernesto Abella said the Department of National Defense (DND) would lead the “Bangon Marawi” recovery effort.
“The EO (executive order) for ‘Bangon Marawi’ is awaiting PRRD’s (President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s) signature,” Abella told government-run dzRB radio.
“The proposed package amounting to P10 billion as surmised by the President will be a multi-agency effort,” he added, without elaborating the source of funding for the program.
Abella said that among the agencies that would join the rebuilding efforts were the departments of trade, education, social welfare, public works, energy and information and communications technology.
“We assure the people that their government will do everything to ensure normalcy and to deliver services to support the people’s aspirations for a comfortable life,” he added.
The Palace official said the Engineering Brigade of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, with the supervision of an undersecretary, would lead the restoration program “with the expressed purpose of bringing back residents and normal everyday life as soon as possible.”
“It should take a minimum of six months and may begin after clearing the city, which should take about at least one to two weeks,” Abella said.
On May 23, the Maute group attacked several establishments in Marawi to seize the city and establish it as the seat of an Islamic province.
The siege prompted the President to declare martial law and suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao.
According to government reports, the ongoing clashes have claimed the lives of 138 Islamist gunmen, as of Friday night.
The military is expecting to end the rebellion in Marawi on Independence Day, June 12, stressing that only three villages were being occupied by the local terror group.
The Palace official said the military was expecting to clear the conflict-torn city “in the next few days.”
“Our forces will continue to carry out military operations to ensure that we save lives through expeditious military action. Their primary concern is to save people’s lives,” Abella said.
WASHINGTON, D.C.: US President Donald Trump punched back Friday against James Comey, accusing the ousted FBI director of lying about their private conversations—and saying he is “100 percent” willing to testify under oath.
Comey delivered scathing testimony a day earlier in a highly anticipated Senate hearing, saying Trump sought to derail a probe into onetime national security advisor Michael Flynn—at best, a political miscalculation, and at worst a criminal obstruction of justice.
Trump was addressing reporters at the White House for the first time since Comey’s explosive appearance, in which he branded the president a liar and said he believed he was fired over his handling of the FBI probe into Russian election meddling.
“Yesterday showed no collusion, no obstruction,” Trump said in reference to the twin controversies dogging his administration—accusations his aides colluded with the Russian effort to tilt the vote, and that he sought to block the related Flynn probe.
Trump lashed out at Comey, dubbing him a “leaker” for indirectly providing reporters with the contents of his memos summarizing their private conversations in the weeks before he was sacked. A person close to Trump’s legal team has said a complaint would be filed with the Justice department.
“Some of the things that he said just weren’t true,” added the president, who – when asked if he would be willing to speak under oath to special prosecutor Robert Mueller about the encounters – responded: “100 percent.”
“I would be glad to tell him exactly what I just told you,” Trump said.
The White House has seized on Comey’s confirmation that Trump personally was not under investigation over his ties to Russia to declare a victory of sorts.
The Republican president took to Twitter earlier in the day, claiming “total and complete vindication.”
The Trump administration has also highlighted the fact Comey stopped short of accusing the president of obstructing justice – a potentially impeachable offense. The former FBI chief has said the decision was now in the hands of special counsel Mueller.
Questioned about Comey’s central claim that Trump told him to lay off Flynn, the president responded: “I didn’t say that.”
“And there would be nothing wrong if I did say it, according to everybody that I read today.”
During almost three hours of statements Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey described himself as “stunned” by Trump’s “very disturbing” and “very concerning” behavior towards him.
Detailing one-on-one talks with a sitting president – which under normal circumstances are private – Comey said he took painstaking notes for fear Trump might “lie” about the unusual encounters.
And Comey admitted that he asked a friend to leak those notes to a reporter, correctly betting that the details would prompt the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Comey said he did so after Trump suggested in a tweet that their conversations may have been recorded.
Trump demurred when asked whether tapes of his talks with Comey actually exist.
“I’ll tell you about that maybe in the very near future,” he said.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, which is also probing Russian election meddling, wrote Comey requesting his notes memorializing his conversations with Trump.
They separately wrote the White House counsel Don McGahn asking whether the recordings exist, and if so, that they be produced to the committee by June 23.
Pundits and legal experts were divided about whether Trump’s actions rose to the level of obstruction of justice, a potentially impeachable offense.
But while Republicans have generally continued to back the president, some have begun openly questioning and criticizing his actions.
“It was clear that the president asked Mr. Comey to do an inappropriate action, and that was to drop the investigation of General Michael Flynn,” Sen. Susan Collins told CNN.
“It crossed a boundary that the president should not have crossed.”
Bob Inglis, a Republican former congressman who voted to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998, suggested Trump might be in particularly hot water.
“Yes, I was on Judiciary committee that impeached Clinton/sent him for trial in the Senate for matters less serious than the ones before us now,” Inglis tweeted Friday.
In his testimony, Comey recalled that during a private White House dinner on January 27, the president asked him for “loyalty” and to lay off his former top aide Flynn – who is under investigation over his Russia ties – imploring Comey to “let this go.””I didn’t say that,” Trump insisted Friday, before heading to his New Jersey golf club in Bedminster where he will spend the weekend. “I hardly know the man. I’m not going to say, ‘I want you to pledge allegiance.’”
Trump abruptly fired Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on May 9, later admitting that the Russia probe was on his mind at the time.
Harvard Law School professor Mark Tushnet said onlookers should keep in mind that Comey knows much more than he can say, calling his testimony a “big deal.”
Lawmakers will get another chance to hear from a top administration official, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, when he testifies Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The traditional vin d’honneur to commemorate Independence Day on June 12 has been cancelled to enable President Rodrigo Duterte to focus on the Marawi crisis, Malacañang said Saturday.
Palace spokesman Ernesto Abella said Duterte would only attend the flag-raising rites at the Rizal Park in Manila on Monday morning and then immediately leave to attend to the Mindanao problem.
“The vin d’honneur scheduled on Monday, June 12, has been cancelled. After the Rizal Park flag-raising activity, on the same day, the President will attend to matters pertaining Mindanao,” Abella said.
State leaders, mermbers of the diplomatic corps and other guests traditionally gather in Malacañang to mark Independence Day.
Duterte hosted his first vin d’honneur in January to mark the New Year.
The President has spent most of his time in Mindanao since the armed conflict began, interacting with troops in various camps in the south.
On May 23, Duterte placed Mindanao under martial law after the Maute extremist group launched attacks on the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi in the province of Lanao del Sur.
The President imposed martial law to stop terror activities in Mindanao.
The military has vowed earlier to “liberate” Marawi City by June 12.