Demonstrators calling for US Troops to withdraw from the Philippines protested the start of annual joint  military exercises Monday, with hundreds of American troops heading to southern islands where Al-Qaeda linked militants operate.

Rallies were held in at least four southern cities to demand US troops leave because of alleged involvement in combat operations– prohibited by Phlippine law– and human rights abuses, activists said.

In Cagayan de Oro, police estimated the crowd at 3,000, including priests and nuns who joined lawmakers and Muslim activists, although rally organizers said more than 5,000.joined the protest march.

Gabriela Women’s Party Representative Liza Maza and Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo led the protest march early Monday which had the city’s traffic paralyzed for hours.

Disputing the government’s claim that the holding of the Balikatan exercises was based on the provisions of the Visiting Forces Agreement, Ocampo said that there was no provision in the agreement allowing for successive military exercises.

“Continued or successive joint military exercises violate the Constitution and even the provisions of VFA. And as we see now, these are not even joint exercises but a one-sided conduct of civic actions by American troops,” Ocampo said.

Maza also lambasted the government for allowing American troops to conduct civic action in the country, saying the humanitarian mission was just a cover.

“These humanitarian missions are just an excuse to allow US troops to enter our communities and pursue their real agenda of justifying their war against terrorism,” she said.

Maza warned that the presence of US troops in Mindanao will lead to more human rights abuses, especially against women and children.

Nuns, priests, and students joined farmer’s groups in the protest, bearing anti-US placards and chanting slogans calling President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo a terrorist.

In Davao City, around 3,000 protesters belonging to Bayan and the Out US Troops-Mindanao Coalition marched through the streets demanding the immediate pull-out of American soldiers from Mindanao.

Protests were also held in Pikit, North Cotabato, and Davao City.

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Filed under Mindanao, News Release, Visiting Forces

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