By Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The United States should not return church bells seized as war trophies from the Philippines over a century ago, Wyoming's congressional delegation said Monday.

It's a position Wyoming officials have repeated often over the years amid reports the Bells of Balangiga were to be repatriated. This time, however, the U.S. Defense Department appears intent on following through.

Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote members of Congress over the weekend saying it was "in the national security interest of the United States" to return the bells.

Two of the Bells of Balangiga are at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The third is with the U.S. Army in South Korea.

U.S. Army soldiers took the bells following an attack on the island of Samar in which 48 American troops were killed in 1901.

"These bells are memorials to American war dead and should not be transferred to the Philippines," the all-Republican delegation made up of U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, said in a joint statement Monday.

Most U.S. veterans oppose returning the bells to the Philippines and the delegation opposes any effort by President Donald Trump's administration to return the bells without veterans' support, the statement said.

Groups including the American Legion and Republican Gov. Matt Mead opposed returning the bells when the idea came up in 2012, during President Barack Obama's administration.

This time, the Defense Department consulted at length with veterans' service organizations about possibly returning the bells, Mattis wrote.

Filipinos revere the bells as symbols of national pride and President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly called for their return. Fewer Filipino combatants died than the Americans in the Balangiga attack but perhaps five times more than the 4,200 Americans were killed over the course of the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War. The war also killed 100,000 or more civilians, according to some estimates.

U.S. Air Force officials didn't respond to a message seeking comment Monday.

The two bells in Wyoming followed a U.S. Army infantry regiment based on Samar during the U.S. occupation. The 11th Infantry arrived in 1904 at Fort D.A. Russell, which in 1930 became Fort Francis E. Warren and in 1949 F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

The third bell followed the 9th Infantry to Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.

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