Two U.S. Air Force enlisted men were shot and killed late Sunday by suspected Communist rebels outside the American-run Clark Air Base. The killings came on the eve of crucial talks on the future of the six U.S. bases here, America's largest overseas military installations.
U.S. officials said the killings will not affect the talks, which are to start early today amid heavy security in Manila. Some 1,500 riot police and soldiers were deployed in anticipation of widespread protests by opposition groups.
"We do not bow to terrorism," one diplomat said. "This (the shooting) is to be condemned. But it does not deter us."
The assailants escaped, and there was no immediate claim of responsibility. But U.S. officials and Philippine police immediately said they suspect that Communist guerrillas were responsible. A U.S. Marine was killed execution-style May 4 outside Subic Bay Naval Base.
Police identified the victims Sunday as Airman John H. Raven, 21, and Airman James C. Green, 22. No hometowns were immediately available. A third American, Airman 1st Class Ronald Moore, 23, escaped unhurt. The men were from the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing stationed at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea. They had arrived earlier this month for an annual combat training exercise.
The group's sergeant, who declined to give his name, said the men had walked out of the Holiday Lodge and Drive Inn about 8:30 p.m. in civilian clothes after a pool-side barbecue for the unit's 39 members. He said they were negotiating on the dimly lit street with a motorized tricycle driver for a ride downtown when they were shot.
"They were just two young kids," the sergeant said angrily. "Good, clean-cut kids. They don't smoke, don't drink."
Local police Capt. Gener Mangune quoted the tricycle driver as saying the gunmen had appeared suddenly from a nearby field of weeds. He said the killers said nothing, walked casually up to the men and fired point-blank with .45-caliber pistols. Five slugs were found at the scene, he said.
"They just walked up from behind and shot them in the head," Mangune said. "Then they fled on foot."
Moore told local reporters that he was talking to a second tricycle driver when he heard the shots.
"I was so scared," Moore said. "I instinctively ducked and ran back to the hotel."
The Communist New People's Army has repeatedly warned that it would strike at American personnel and installations before the bases talks. There are about 40,000 U.S. men and women, defense contractors and their dependents at the six facilities in the Philippines, but nearly half live in private homes and apartments outside the bases.
"I suspect this will not be the end of it," an American official said. "There will be other killings. . . . The reality is we do not have the capacity to protect our assets."
Partially because of the increased threat, U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Platt said last week that he is considering plans to sharply cut the size of the embassy operation, which is one of the largest in the world. Up to one-third of the more than 400 American diplomats and officials ultimately may be moved.
The embassy also plans to move its military advisory group's headquarters, now isolated in Manila's suburban Quezon City, to a site beside the embassy's residential and recreational compound facing Manila Bay.
In Washington, a White House spokesman said, "We are appalled at what happened, and we will cooperate with the Philippine government and local authorities to fully investigate this matter."
Hours after the shootings, a pool of blood still darkened the muddy street outside the two-story stucco hotel, which is about a mile from Clark's main gate. The town's bars and nightclubs were eerily deserted after U.S. military police ordered all personnel to return to the base or to their quarters in town.
"I'm sure this will affect the economy of the town," Marino Morales, the hotel owner and vice mayor, said. "This town is base dependent."
Clark has long been considered one of the safest overseas military postings. About 60% of the 20,000 American soldiers and family members assigned to Clark live in Angeles City and nearby residential areas, the largest percentage of off-base residence for any U.S. facility in the Pacific. About 40% of the 15,000 Americans at Subic Bay live off-base.
All leave and liberty for U.S. military personnel, defense contractors and their dependents was canceled throughout the Philippines after the shootings, and "non-essential off-base travel" was restricted, military spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Mukri said.
Eight Americans have been killed in the last 13 months in attacks blamed on Communist assassins. Although weakened by internal divisions and Philippine military operations, the rebels still control vast portions of the country, with about 19,000 guerrillas in the field, according to military analysts.
Sunday's shootings were the first attack on Americans at Clark since October, 1987, when Communist assassins killed three U.S. servicemen just outside the base and wounded an officer. The killers were arrested and jailed but later escaped. The surrounding province of Pampanga has long been a center of Communist activity.
The murder of the two airmen occurred hours after U.S. special negotiator Richard L. Armitage arrived with a team of six Pentagon and State Department officials for talks on the bases. Foreign Minister Raul Manglapus will lead the Philippine delegation.
U.S. officials hope the so-called exploratory talks will lead to full negotiations later this year. Leases originally set in 1947 on the six facilities expire in September, 1991.
Despite the reduction in East-West tensions, and anticipated deep cuts in Pentagon spending and troop strength, the United States considers the bases crucial for guarding Asian sea lanes and projecting power in the Pacific.
But they are a highly emotional issue for many Filipinos. The bases are widely seen as a vestige of the U.S. colonial period, and recent opinion polls show growing anti-U.S. sentiment among politicians, clergy and voters. Daily headlines trumpet base-related problems, from AIDS to errant servicemen who escape Philippine prosecution.
"It's not a normal government-to-government negotiation," cautioned one Asian diplomat. "The whole Philippine people will get involved. The talks are a national catharsis."
Verbal sparring began even before the talks. President Corazon Aquino, appearing Sunday on nationwide TV, ruled out a quick deal and vowed to respect constitutional requirements for a formal treaty, rather than an executive agreement, if the leases are extended.
"Regardless of the outcome, our government has already begun to look beyond the bases," Aquino said.
Armitage, a former assistant secretary of defense, was similarly testy in his opening statement, according to a copy of his prepared remarks.
Saying he was not sent to "roll back the clock," Armitage acknowledged that the resumption of Philippine democracy in 1986 "makes interactions between our governments more lively, complicated and, at times, more contentious. . . . "
"If you ask us to leave, leave we shall, as expeditiously as possible and with our pride fully intact," he said. " . . . These negotiations could degenerate into acrimony unless both sides see and feel a mutuality of understanding, confidence and, above all, interests."
U.S. negotiators are prepared to share the bases more with the Philippine military, leading to a less visible role for the Americans. The Pentagon particularly hopes to maintain the use of key ship repair and bunkering facilities at Subic Bay, modern air cargo facilities at Clark and the giant Crow Valley bombing and training range nearby.
U.S. officials have disputed press reports here that Washington is prepared to relinquish Clark and transfer its planes to Subic, which has an 8,800-foot runway across the bay at Cubi Point.
On the Philippine side, Manglapus said last week that he will demand that the United States make up a shortfall in payments pledged under a 1988 executive agreement. The Bush Administration concedes that Congress has failed to appropriate $96 million under the $481-million annual aid package, while Manglapus argues the figure is $222 million.
Platt said last week that he hopes a new agreement can be hammered out by the end of the year.
The talks come as Aquino's government, which survived its sixth coup attempt last December, faces continued instability. Intelligence sources now fear a so-called bloodless coup, in which mainstream military leaders and business people might move against Aquino in an attempt to forestall another overthrow attempt by right-wing rebels.
Analysts say domestic pressure and a faltering economy may weaken her hand further. The American bases provide jobs to 78,000 Filipinos and account for $1 billion a year in aid and indirect spending.