Five US marines have been accused of gang raping a 22-year-old Filipino woman at the former US navy base of Subic Bay earlier this week, throwing shadow over the annual joint military exercises between the United States and the Philippines held under a visiting force agreement.
The five US marines were prevented from boarding their amphibious warship, USS Essex, to leave the Philippines on Thursday after a Filipino woman accused them of gang raping her in a van in Olongapo City near Subic Bay on Nov. 1, the All Saints' Day which is an important Catholic festival here for mourning the dead.
The US marines, who were from the US military bases in Okinawa, Japan, were later turned over to the US embassy here by the Philippine authorities, according to Philippine officials in charge of supervising the just-concluded military exercises named "Talon Vision" held at the Subic Bay, in which 4,500 US marines and navy sailors participated.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo said in a statement that he has asked the US Embassy to make sure that the accused soldiers do not leave the country and that they be made available to Philippine police and judicial authorities.
"I am deeply concerned by this report and I have instructed the VFACOM (Visiting Forces Agreement Committee) to fully assist the victim of this crime and to support all efforts by our authorities to investigate, prosecute and try this case," said Romulo.
"The perpetrators of this heinous crime shall be brought to justice," he added.
The VFACOM is a US-Philippine joint institution charged with supervising the annual US-Philippine military exercises being held under a mutual defense agreement and a visiting forces agreement.
The acting US embassy charge d'affaires Paul Jones said the five US marines are under the responsibility of the embassy but assured they will be made accessible to local authorities.
"They are under American responsibility. I conveyed how seriously the US takes this accusation. We have an important agreement we make them available to Philippine investigators," he told local media.
But he said the US authorities are conducting separate probes into the case and justice will be done if the Americans are found guilty.
"While the charges are very serious, they are innocent unless proven guilty. If they are proven guilty, we obviously find this an outrageous crime," he said.
In a separate statement, the US embassy said the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) , signed in 1998 between the Philippine and US governments to allow US troops return to the Philippines after they pulled out in 1993, provides the mechanism for US and Philippine authorities to work together to determine the facts of the case and to ensure that accused individuals are available to both Filipino and US investigators.
The Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) said the alleged victim was invited by the Americans to go with them in a rented van after they met in a video-OK bar, where people drink and sing. A few hours later, the woman was seen dumped unconscious on a road from the van.
Under the VFA, US troops who take part in joint exercises in the Philippines are provided with special legal protection for actions taken as part of the war games but are given less protection for crimes committed while on leave.
US troops pulled out of the Subic Bay and Clark airfield military bases in 1993 after the Philippine Senate voted to take back the bases built during US rule in the Philippines from the beginning of 20th century until World War II.