US returns disputed church bells to Philippines | News | DW | 11.12.2018
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US returns disputed church bells to Philippines

US forces had seized the three Bells of Balangiga as war trophies more than a century ago. Philippine leaders, including current president Rodrigo Duterte, had long demanded their return.

Three church bells seized by American troops in 1901 were returned to the Philippines on Tuesday.

US officials handed over the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippine defense chief in a solemn ceremony at Villamor Air Base near the nation's capital of Manila. They are to be returned to Balangiga on the central Samar island where US forces killed thousands of villagers more than a century ago.

"It is my great honor to be here at this closing of a painful chapter in our history," said Sung Kim, the US ambassador to the Philippines, adding that returning the bells was "overwhelmingly viewed as the right thing to do."

The handover of the Bells of Balangiga (picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Marquez)

The three bells of Balangiga seized by US forces in 1901

American occupation troops took the bells from a Catholic church in Balangiga following an attack by Filipino villagers that killed 48 US soldiers. The bells were rung to signal the villagers' surprise attack on US forces, who retaliated by reportedly killing thousands of villagers, including women and children.

Two of the bells had been on display for decades at an air force base in Wyoming. The third was at a US Army museum in South Korea.

The battles in Balangiga took place towards the end of the 1899-1902 Philippine-American, a conflict that paved the way for Philippine independence from the United States.

One of the Bells of Balangiga (picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Marquez)

One of the Bells of Balangiga is unloaded from a US military cargo plane

An important gesture

National television in the Philippines aired the arrival of the bells in a military cargo plane and the handover ceremony in Manila. The bells are revered by Filipinos as symbols of national pride and Philippine leaders had long demanded they be returned.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis had promised President Rodrigo Duterte that he would push for their return, which Duterte had called for during his annual state of the nation address. Mattis has said the handover is an important gesture of friendship and is in the national security interest of the United States.

Read more: Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte: I will never visit 'lousy' US

The return was made possible after an amendment to US legislation lifted a ban on the return of war relics and memorials to foreign countries. Some US veterans and officials had opposed the bells' handover, calling them memorials to American war dead.

The decision to return the bells could be an attempt by the US to appease Duterte, who has condemned his country's former occupants for its history of hypocrisy, arrogance and political interference.

The Philippine president has referenced to the violence by Americans in Balangiga and on the southern island of Jojo in the early 1900s to combat US criticism of his brutal crackdown on illegal drugs.

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