US, Philippines end exercises as local groups call on Duterte to scrap future drills

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The 12-day joint military drills between the United States and the Philippines wrapped up on Friday, with officials of allied countries claiming the troops stand more prepared to respond to terror threats and natural disasters in the region.

Only 2,600 American troops and 2,800 Philippine troops, about half of the previous scale, participated in this year's Balikatan or shoulder-to-shoulder exercises that were conducted in multiple locations in the Philippine main Luzon Island and the Visayan region in the central Philippines.

Unlike in the past years, Balikatan 2017 also skipped all combat-related exercises like live-fire drills and amphibious landings at the behest of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has threatened to scrap the exercises and drive away all U.S. troops on Philippine soil.

Duterte has ordered Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to focus on humanitarian and disaster response and drills that would hone the counter-terrorism skills of the participants.

During the period of their joint exercises, some Philippine local groups have called on Duterte to scrap the exercises with the Americans, saying it contradicts Duterte's posture of an independent foreign policy.

Bagong Alyansang Makabayan or Bayan held a protest rally on Wednesday to oppose the continued holding of the joint exercises, saying the scaling down of the drills this year does not change the nature and the political objectives of the U.S. war games.

"The exercises provide a venue for U.S. power projection in the region. The U.S. forces are flexing their muscles and sending a message to the countries of East Asia," Bayan said in a statement.

Another local group called Karapatan that held a protest rally at the U.S. embassy on Wednesday also called on Philippine government "to walk the talk and decisively terminate one-sided agreements" with the United States, including the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Duterte administration decided to scrap two other joint exercises with the United States and retain Balikatan or "shoulder-to-shoulder" only, Philippine military announced last November.

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