US officials welcomed visitors yesterday to the USS Carl Vinson warship, from which Osama bin Laden’s body was buried at sea, but did not discuss the ultra-secretive attack that killed him, reflecting US concern over possible retaliation.
US defense officials were taking measures to ensure the security of the operatives involved in the May 2 assault on a walled fortress in Abbottabad, Pakistan, particularly the US Navy SEAL team that killed the al-Qaeda leader.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, accompanied by senior members of his Cabinet and military chief of staff, were flown to the massive aircraft carrier on Saturday as it traveled in the South China Sea toward the Philippines.
A group of journalists were invited to tour and talk to sailors aboard the 88,000-tonne Carl Vinson, which anchored off Manila along with three other warships yesterday at the start of a four-day routine port call and goodwill visit.
Philippine Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin said Aquino and his entourage were given a tour of the warship and an exhibition of fighter jets landing and taking off from the Carl Vinson, including one flown by a Filipino American pilot.
Aquino, at one point, sat on the cockpit of an F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jet at a hangar bay as sailors snapped pictures. He talked and posed for souvenir pictures with many beaming Filipino American sailors, Gazmin said.
However, the one thing on everybody’s mind — bin Laden’s burial from the Carl Vinson just 12 days earlier — did not come up. US Navy officials did not touch the sensitive subject and Aquino’s group saw it fit not to ask questions, Gazmin said.
“We did not ask for a briefing because it was too sensitive,” Gazmin said. “It was a friendly visit and we let it stay that way.”
Gazmin, a retired general, said he was impressed by the stunning US commando nighttime strike that got bin Laden, adding it showed the might of the US military force.
Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario, who said it was his first time to set foot on an aircraft carrier, was impressed as warplanes landed and were launched by catapults from the tarmac.
“You can feel the inherent power of these fighter jets,” del Rosario said.
In impromptu remarks on the ship, Aquino reaffirmed the “historic, defense and cultural ties” between the US and the Philippines, one of Washington’s oldest and closest Asian allies, presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said.
US special forces have been training and arming Filipino soldiers battling al-Qaeda-linked militants in the southern Philippines since 2003.
The US embassy in Manila said the Carl Vinson’s service members would take part in sports events, seminars and community assistance projects with their Philippine counterparts.
The visit will contribute about US$4.65 million to the local economy from port fees and crew expenditures, the embassy said in a statement.
Philippine police have said they will step up security in Manila, where left-wing groups have threatened to stage protests against the US warship’s visit.