Sat, May 13, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Drills delayed after craft runs aground on Guam


The FS Mistral, a French amphibious assault ship, on Thursday pulls into port at Naval Base Guam near Hagatna, Guam.

Photo: AP

Military drills in Guam in which four nations were to practice amphibious landings and moving of troops have been postponed indefinitely after a French landing craft ran aground yesterday.

The week-long exercises involving the US, UK, France and Japan were intended to show support for the free passage of vessels in international waters amid concerns that China might restrict access to the South China Sea.

The French catamaran ran aground just offshore and did not hit coral or spill any fuel, Naval Base Guam spokesman Jeff Landis said, adding that no one was injured.

Yesterday’s landing was meant to be a rehearsal for a drill on Tinian Island today, Landis said.

US Navy Captain Jeff Grimes said that authorities were working to assess the situation and did not know when the drills would resume.

“I have directed that we stop all operations associated with this exercise until we conduct a further assessment of the situation as we gather all the facts,” Grimes said.

“NOAA [the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration] in Honolulu is aware and is collecting information about the incident,” NOAA Pacific Islands regional office administrator Michael Tosatto said.

The drills around Guam and the Tinian islands were scheduled to include amphibious landings, delivering forces by helicopter and urban patrols.

Two French ships on a four-month deployment to the Indian and Pacific oceans were to be involved. Joining were Japanese forces, UK helicopters and 70 UK troops deployed with the French amphibious assault ship FS Mistral. Parts of the exercise were to feature British helicopters taking US Marines ashore from a French vessel.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and has tried to fortify those claims by building islands — some with weapons systems — on seven reefs. The reclamation is opposed by other governments that claim the atolls and by the US, which insists on freedom of navigation in international waters.

China says its work is intended to improve safety for ships and meet other civilian purposes. It has said it would not interfere with freedom of navigation or overflight, although questions remain on whether that includes military ships and aircraft.

Members of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday expressed concern that the US has not conducted freedom-of-navigation operations since October last year.

Seven senators, including Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Ben Cardin, wrote the letter to US President Donald Trump, saying they supported a US military assessment that China is militarizing the South China Sea and is continuing a “methodical strategy” to control it.

The letter urged the administration to “routinely exercise” freedom of navigation and overflight.

Japan, which sent 160 sailors, 50 soldiers and landing craft, has been investing in amphibious training so it can defend its islands.

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