The Philippine military on Thursday denied it planned to use 16 Bell 412EPI helicopters bought from Canada as attack aircraft against local insurgents, following reports Ottawa was reviewing the deal.
Canadian media had reported overnight Wednesday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government was reconsidering the sale over fears the aircraft would be used in internal security operations, just hours after both governments had announced it in public.
“They must not politicise the acquisition,” said Major-General Restituto Padilla, the deputy chief of staff for plans and programmes of the Philippine armed forces, on Thursday.
“You must understand that these are utility helicopters, not attack helicopters,” Padilla told AFP.
According to the Philippine defence department, the deal was signed with trade promotion outfit Canadian Commercial Corp last December, shortly after Trudeau clashed with President Rodrigo Duterte during a Manila visit over Philippine drug war killings.
The deal is part of the government’s “Horizon 2” combat modernization plan for the Philippine Air Force.
Manila signed a deal with Moscow in October for technical and military cooperation, as well as a contract for rocket-propelled grenade launchers that are to be produced in Russia.
In November, the Philippines ordered six A-29 Super Tucano aircraft from Brazil’s Embraer. Those light attack and training planes will be used for close air support, light attack, surveillance, air-to-air interception, and counterinsurgency missions, according to the company.
The Philippines employs attack helicopters and planes to support ground troops battling militants in the Muslim south, as well as against communist guerrillas in other parts of the mainly Catholic Asian nation.
A Philippine defence department spokesman told AFP on Wednesday its air force would use the Bell 412EPI aircraft, worth US$234.8 million, for disaster response and humanitarian missions, but also for “anti-terrorism.”
However, Padilla said Thursday this did not mean they would be used as “attack helicopters.”
“Not at all.They are purely for utility purposes – ergo, transport purposes especially during HADR operations,” he said, using a military term for disaster response.
“We have separate and dedicated attack helicopters.”
Apart from armed insurgencies, the Philippines is also regularly battered by typhoons.
Bell Helicopter had said the Philippine military will use the aircraft “for a variety of missions such as disaster relief, search and rescue, passenger transport and utility transport.”
The Philippines bought eight Bell 412EP helicopters in 2014 for about CAD$117 million.
Canadian ambassador to Manila John Holmes said Wednesday the versatility of the aircraft would improve the “search and rescue and disaster relief capabilities” of the Philippines and would be a “real benefit” to its citizens.
An embassy spokesman said it did not have a comment to make Thursday.
Trudeau said in November he had called out Duterte over “human rights, the rule of law, and specifically extrajudicial killings.”
Duterte, who has overseen a crackdown that has left nearly 4,000 drug suspects dead at the hands of the police, later described Trudeau’s comments as “a personal and official insult.”
The Philippine government says police only shot the suspects in self-defence and rejects human rights monitors’ description of the crackdown as a crime against humanity.
With reporting from AFP