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Philippines, U.S. agree to reduce joint military drills - Philippine general

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine and United States military officials agreed to scale back joint exercises and reduce U.S. troop deployments, a Philippine general involved in the talks said on Tuesday, though a statement issued by the allies spoke of “close cooperation”.

Ricardo Visaya (L), Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), greets Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of United States Pacific Command (USPACOM), before the start of their meeting inside AFP military headquarters at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines November 22, 2016. Armed Forces of the Philippines/Handout via REUTERS

The joint statement omitted mention of any reduced level of engagement between the two militaries, though President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed his opposition to having foreign troops on Philippines’ soil and has threatened to scrap exercises and abrogate pacts.

Reading the joint statement, spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said there would be continued “close cooperation in areas central to both our national and security interests”.

That would include humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, counter-terrorism and maritime security, he said.

But one Philippine general involved in the talks said the two sides also agreed to reduce the size and frequency of joint exercises and the number of U.S. troops taking part.

“The two allies will focus more on humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations and other non-traditional military training and exercises,” said the general, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

The number of U.S. troops would be “small”, he said. Some 5,000 American soldiers have taken part in exercises in the Philippines in the past two years.

The Philippine general who spoke anonymously said the defence ministry had instructed the military to scale back joint exercises, which should be “refocused on disaster” relief, and end naval and amphibious landing drills.

He said planned U.S. deployments under a 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) - which Duterte has also said he would try to stop - would go on.

“But, that too, we will see a scaling down on the number of aircraft and troops rotated in our bases,” the general said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department, Commander Gary Ross, said it had been agreed “to change some exercises” to focus on humanitarian assistance, disaster response and counter-terrorism and said additional partners would be invited “to enhance multilateral cooperation”.

Ross said the two sides had agreed “to continue implementing” EDCA, which he called a mutually beneficial agreement that would help speed humanitarian assistance and modernise the Philippine military.

The Philippines has for decades been one of the most important U.S. allies in Asia but the relationship has been shaken by Duterte voicing disdain and mistrust of Washington.

Speaking to business leaders in Beijing last month, Duterte spoke of his “separation” from the United States. A few days later he backtracked on those comments.

In Peru on Saturday, Duterte met Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time and bemoaned what he called hypocrisy and “bullying” by the United States and allies.

Reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Paul Tait