MANILA, Philippines (1st UPDATE) - A US Navy minesweeper, the USS Guardian, ran aground in the Sulu Sea off the Philippines on Thursday, and was stuck on a reef, the Navy said.
No one was injured in the incident, which occurred at 2:25 a.m. local time on Tubbataha Reef about 80 miles (130 km) east-southeast of Palawan Island, in the Philippines, the Navy said. There were no reports that any fuel leaked from the vessel.
The ship, with a crew of 80, had just completed a port call at Subic Bay in the Philippines, when the grounding occurred.
"The crew is currently working to determine the best method of safely extracting the ship," a Navy statement said, adding that the cause of the grounding was under investigation.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) confirmed the incident at the reef, which is a world heritage site.
DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said the US Embassy in Manila informed the department about the incident.
"The cause of the grounding is still under investigation. The DFA is closely coordinating this matter with the US Embassy and the DND, the AFP and the PCG," Hernandez said. "We expect that relevant agencies of the Philippine government will conduct their own investigation, assess the impact of the incident on the reef, and recommend any and all actions that must be taken."
"For the moment, our main concern is to ensue safety of navigation in the area and to mitigate this incident's impact in the reef which is natural and national treasure," he added.
US presence assailed
The incident drew flak from a lawmaker and leftist activists.
"The continued presence of US troops in the Philippines has attacked our sovereignty in all terrains - land, air, and now our territorial waters. The incident in Tubbataha is simply unforgivable," Kabataan Partylist Rep. Raymond Palatino said in a press statement Thursdau.
He quoted the the Tubbataha management office as allegedly saying that the US Navy ship damaged large portions of the heritage site's coral reefs, thus violating pertinent Philippine laws, including Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs National Park Act of 2009.
He said the US Navy may be fined approximately P12,000 per square meter of damaged corals.
"This case just highlights how the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty between our country and the US is opening loopholes that enable the said imperialist country to conduct covert military operations on our territory, without any regard whatsoever on its effects to our people and our natural resources. It is appalling, really appalling," Palatino said.
He wants Congress to investigate the incident.
"This incident shows us how the United States military forces have brazenly disrespected our laws and damaged our country's environment and national treasures," Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment official Clemente Bautista said.
"We denounce how the US military forces responsible for the damage have barred our environmental officials from inspecting the USS Guardian to immediately assess the incident. They are the intruders and violators, yet they still have the gall to disrespect Filipino officials and bar them from doing their environmental duties. This is the height of US military arrogance and brazenness," he claimed.
"What is the US military doing in Tubbataha Reef and its environs? What other environmentally-critical areas has the US military presence damaged or destroyed?" Bautista asked. - with a report from Reuters