The US Navy minesweeper that smashed into the World Heritage-listed coral reef off the Philippines coast last week ignored warnings to avoid the area, according to a Philippine government official.
The comments from the superintendent of Tubbataha Marine Park, Angelique Songco, added to growing anger in the Philippines over the incident, for which the US Navy may face fines.
Park rangers radioed the USS Guardian to advise it was nearing the Tubbataha Reef on Thursday, but the ship captain radioed back telling park rangers to bring their complaint to the US embassy, Ms Songco told reporters on Monday.
Songco blamed the USS Guardian for turning away park rangers who were about to follow protocol by boarding the ship to check if it had the proper permits, but saw the minesweeper's crewmembers were in "battle position."
Shortly after the warning, the US ship rammed into the Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Sulu Sea about 130 kilometers south east of the western island of Palawan.
The site is protected by Philippine law and is off-limits to navigation except for research or tourism approved by Ms Songco's office.
Ms Songco said it was too early to assess how severe the damage to the corals is, with the vessel still stuck on the reef and being battered by big waves.
According to Reuters, Philippine President Benigno Aquino has given orders to not allow the U.S. Navy to attempt to salvage the minesweeper without Philippine involvement, in order to minimize damage to coral reefs.
Some politicians and activist groups have said the US ship had violated the terms of a 1999 visiting forces agreement by sailing in the area.
“This incident shows us how the United States military forces have brazenly disrespected our laws and damaged our country's environment and national treasures,” said Clemente Bautista, coordinator of the Kalikasan PNE (Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment).
“At this moment USS Guardian is stuck atop Tubbataha Reef and continues to wreck our national treasure. The US officials until now offer no clear explanation as to why their ship trespassed into the marine sanctuary. No apology or even an acknowledgement of the violation was done... The Philippine government, which up to this day have not filed any formal protest or complaint against the US Navy, is showing how spineless they are before the US. We expect that the Aquino government again to defend the US military forces by invoking the power of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA),” adds Bautista.
UNESCO describes the World Heritage site as a “unique example of an atoll reef with a very high density of marine species… serving as a nesting site for birds and marine turtles.”
“The site is an excellent example of a pristine coral reef with a spectacular 100-m perpendicular wall, extensive lagoons and two coral islands,” according to UNESCO.
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