US to return war booty church bells to Philippines

Manila (AFP) –


The United States will return to the Philippines church bells seized by American forces in a bloody campaign more than a century ago, its embassy said on Sunday, following a demand by President Rodrigo Duterte.

American forces took three bells from the Catholic church of Balangiga town on the eastern island of Samar in 1901 as war booty in what historians said was a particularly brutal military operation in the new US colony.

Duterte and previous Philippine governments had urged Washington to return the bells, with the president often raising the issue in his anti-American tirades as he builds closer ties with China and Russia.

The US had initially given a non-committal response to Duterte's demands but on Sunday said it would return the bells.

"The Secretary of Defense has notified Congress that the Department (of Defense) intends to return the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines," said Molly Koscina, spokeswoman for the US embassy in Manila.

"We've received assurances that the Bells will be returned to the Catholic Church and treated with the respect and honor they deserve," she added, saying there was no date scheduled for the move.

Duterte's spokesman welcomed the announcement.

Two of the bells are installed at a memorial for US war dead in the state of Wyoming, while the third is with US forces in South Korea.

Some US politicians oppose the dismantling of the memorial, and the issue had sparked an emotional response from the descendants of American soldiers who served in the Philippine campaign.

The Philippines, a Spanish colony for centuries, was ceded to the United States in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. The country gained independence from the US in 1946.

The brutal Samar campaign was launched about a month after Filipino rebels killed 34 US troops in Balangiga on September 28, 1901, according to a US Army War College research paper.

Seven other American soldiers perished during the escape from Balangiga, and US reinforcements razed the town the day after, it added.

Then-Philippine president Fidel Ramos first sought but failed to recover the bells during a 1998 Washington trip.

Duterte, who took office in mid-2016, demanded the return of the bells during his State of the Nation address last year: "Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are not yours. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage."