US, Philippine troops 'assault' beach near disputed South China Sea outcrop

SAN ANTONIO, Philippines (AFP) - More than 200 US and Filipino Marines launched a mock amphibious assault on Monday on an enemy beachfront close to a disputed South China Sea outcrop.

Amid driving rain and rough waves, five amphibious assault tanks roared off from a US destroyer anchored off Zambales province, about two hours drive northwest of Manila, and landed on the soggy beach peppered with imaginary foes.

US Marines scanned the horizon on scopes mounted on assault rifles as they dramatically emerged from the hatch, while their Filipino counterparts took firing positions on the ground.

Shots later rang out towards enemy positions in an assault that lasted about an hour.

The drill was part of week-long, annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training that the United States bilaterally holds with Asian allies, including the Philippines, to boost maritime security.

About 1,000 US and Filipino troops and five warships, including an American missile destroyer, took part in the training, which began last week.

Philippine fleet commander Jaime Bernardino told reporters at the start of the war games last week that they were designed to upgrade the Filipino navy's capability in guarding the country's long coastline.

"These are the gaps that we would like to address (to) make sure we detect (foreign vessels) properly, we intercept them and we neutralise them if necessary," he had said.

Monday's exercise took place on an uninhabited beach near a naval outpost on Zambales on Luzon island, 220 kilometres (137 miles) east of Scarborough Shoal on the South China Sea.

The shoal, a traditionally-rich fishing ground, has been effectively taken over by China following a tense year-long standoff with the Philippines in 2012.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including waters near its smaller neighbours' shores.

It has been accused of becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claims to the sea, a vital shipping lane also believed to contain vast oil and mineral deposits.

Parts of the sea are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Filipino military officials had said the manoeuvres were designed to plug "capability gaps" within the Philippine military, considered one of the weakest in the region.

The Philippines has increasingly looked at the United States to boost its military capabilities amid the Chinese threat.

In recent years, the Philippine acquired two US ships to patrol its coasts.

In April, the allies signed a defence pact that would see thousands of US troops stationed in the country in the next decade, including in Subic, once the country's largest naval shipyard outside US soil until 1992 when it was shut.

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