Olongapo SubicBay BatangGapo Newscenter

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

RP SAFE, GREAT TO VISIT - U.S. DEPUTY CHIEF OF MISSION

The No. 2 man at the US Embassy has declared the Philippines a safe and "great place to visit."

Except when it’s April and "it’s too damned hot," Deputy Chief of Mission Joseph Mussomeli hastened to add.

Speaking with reporters at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City yesterday, Mussomeli reminded the media not to make a big fuss over what he clarified was a "public announcement" by the US State Department, not a travel advisory warning Americans against visiting the country.

"The Philippines is a great place to visit. We welcome (Americans) to come and we believe — I believe — they keep increasing," Mussomeli said, referring to the heavy arrival of American tourists in the country.

In fact, he said, he and many other US citizens living and working here have been urging their relatives and friends to visit for a vacation.

"We would not have our parents and our children visit if it is really that dangerous. We certainly feel very safe here," Mussomeli told journalists at the military headquarters where he came on behalf of US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone to open this year’s month-long RP-US Balikatan military exercises. Ricciardone was busy because his father is visiting.

What puts the country in a bad light before the world, Mussomeli said, is the way the local media treat the problems of terrorism and the corresponding pronouncements by foreign governments.

"They are not travel advisories, they are public announcements and we have that on every country in the world. The difference is that the Philippine media make it (into) headlines. No other country in the world makes it a headline so it is not a big deal," the US envoy pointed out.

Malacañang earlier said the US State Department may have "overreacted" when it issued a public announcement last Friday, advising its citizens about high threats of terrorism in the Philippines. This came on the heels of Valentine’s Day bombings that left 13 people dead and 140 wounded across the country.

Mussomeli reiterated there is a difference between travel advisories or warnings, and mere public announcements.

"Travel advisories are very rare and, for many years, we have not had one for the Philippines," he said.

The American diplomat noted that terrorism is a global problem and attacks like the Feb. 14 bombing spree in two southern cities and in Makati City could strike anywhere in the world.

"There’s always a threat of terrorist attack but no specific credible information that there are any in the offing. Where the terrorists would strike and when is anyone’s guess," Mussomeli said. "It could be in the Philippines, it could be in the United States, it could be anywhere. It is not the sort of thing that should be focused on and worried about too much."

According to the US State Department website, travel warnings are issued "when the department decides, based on all relevant information, to recommend that Americans avoid travel to a certain country."

"Countries where avoidance of travel is recommended will have travel warnings as well as consular information sheets," the State Department said.

On the other hand, the department said it issues public announcements "to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions that pose significant risks or disruptions to Americans."

A few hours after the Valentine’s Day bombings occurred, the United Kingdom also amended its earlier travel advisory for the Philippines.

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised its nationals about last week’s bombings and announced further updates would be posted as soon as more information is received.

The UK, along with Canada and Australia, earlier advised against traveling to all parts of Mindanao.

The State Department noted in its public announcement that the US Embassy in Manila continued to receive reports of activities by terrorist groups. There are more than 100,000 Americans residing in the Philippines.

The al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group, which the US labels as a foreign terror organization, has claimed responsibility for the Valentine’s Day attacks in retaliation for claimed oppression of Muslims amid a military onslaught against rebels in Sulu.

Despite the latest terrorist attacks, the Philippine tourism department has expressed confidence that more foreign travelers will visit the country.

During the first 10 days of January, Tourism Secretary Joseph Durano cited international arrivals at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport reported a 9.97-percent growth compared with the same period last year.

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