updated 1/17/2006 4:28:10 PM ET 2006-01-17T21:28:10

The United States on Tuesday refused a Philippine request to hand over four Marines charged with rape, provoking anti-American protests in the capital and the Muslim south, where U.S. troops began annual counterterrorism training of Filipino soldiers.

In a letter to the Philippine government, the U.S. Embassy invoked the bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows large-scale U.S. training in the country, and vowed to keep the Marines in its custody during an upcoming trial.

Prosecutor Prudencio Jalandoni said he was disappointed but would ask the court handling the rape case to abide by the U.S. decision and set a trial date.

Custody of the Americans “is important for the purpose of showing that we are a sovereign and independent state, but ... what is important to us is that justice be done,” Jalandoni said.

A Philippine judge last week issued arrest warrants for the Marines, who were charged with rape late last year while on liberty following counterterrorism maneuvers with Filipino troops.

Prosecutors allege that Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith raped a 22-year-old woman Nov. 1 inside a van at Subic Bay, a former U.S. Naval base northwest of Manila, as fellow Marines cheered him on. Smith claims he only had consensual sex.

Also charged were Lance Cpl. Keith Silkwood, Lance Cpl. Dominic Duplantis and Staff Sgt. Chad Carpentier, part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Force stationed in Okinawa, Japan.

The embassy hasn’t released their hometowns.

Al-Qaida links in the Philippines
The case has stirred emotions in the former American colony and is seen as a black mark on U.S. military exercises, which have been credited with helping weaken al-Qaida-linked militants in the country’s restive south.

About 30 left-wing students with mock arrest warrants lay on a scorching road near the U.S. Embassy, raising their fists and yelling: “Arrest the American troops and let them pay!”

Left-wing Rep. Satur Ocampo called for the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement and said the U.S. rejection of the custody request was “an insult to Philippine sovereignty.”

Renato Reyes, head of the left-wing umbrella Bayan, called for a boycott of American products — an unlikely development in the country awash in U.S. goods.

Sen. Joker Arroyo said the U.S. decision “will only provoke ... a re-examination of the VPA and if need be, its abrogation to correct an inequality and settle once for all ... the question of custody over U.S. servicemen who commit criminal offenses in the Philippines.”

About 2,000 protesters also greeted American troops in the southern town of Carmen, about 560 miles southeast of Manila, where they started monthlong exercises with Filipino troops.

Only Muslims arrested?
Zaynab Ampatuan, deputy head of the left-wing Muslim group Suara Bangsamoro, said the local Muslim community “should not allow U.S. troops to train Filipino troops to run after suspected terrorists. No other suspects are being arrested except (Muslims).”

The protesters carried streamers “Never again to gang rape,” and “U.S. troops out now.”

Maj. William Nagel, commander of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group Airborne, based in Fort Lewis, Wash., and his Philippine counterpart said U.S. troops will mostly be restricted to the camp.

“I am confident that we will not have problems that may have happened in the past,” Nagel said, adding: “I will make sure that my soldiers behave in a manner and in keeping with our standards.”

The Philippines relies on U.S. military training and equipment to fight the Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaida-linked group blamed for high-profile kidnappings and deadly bombings.

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