Philippine President Benigno Aquino III was not home Saturday morning to receive the returning boxing hero Manny Pacquiao.
At the invitation of the American ambassador, Mr. Aquino led senior members of his Cabinet on a hush-hush visit to the American nuclear-powered carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, from where terrorist Osama bin Laden was buried at sea following his killing by US Navy Seals on May 2.
The warship, escorted by three other vessels, is scheduled to dock in Manila Bay on Sunday in what the United States Embassy said is a four-day "routine port call and goodwill visit that highlights the strong historic, community and military connections between the US and the Philippines."
Mr. Aquino was given a special tour of the US Navy aircraft carrier while she was out at sea on Saturday, according to the US embassy.
The aircraft carrier is coming from the North Arabian Sea, where it had received the US Seal teams who carried Bin Laden's body after killing the al-Qaida leader in a daring raid on his home in Pakistan.
Two Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters from the same carrier took a low-level flight across Pakistan to deliver the US Navy Seal team that took out Bin Laden from his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Embassy spokesperson Rebecca Thompson said Mr. Aquino, US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. and other Philippine officials were flown early Saturday on a US military aircraft to the carrier.
"We are so honored that President Aquino was able to visit the carrier today," said Thomas in a statement.
"The crew was just thrilled to be able to meet him and the other distinguished visitors who joined us," said Thomas.
Communications Development Secretary Ricky Carandang, who was one of those who joined Mr. Aquino, said it was the US Embassy that arranged for Mr. Aquino's visit to the carrier while it was still in international waters approaching the Philippines.
In impromptu remarks on the ship, the President reaffirmed the "historic, defense and cultural ties" between the United States and the Philippines, one of Washington's oldest and closest Asian allies, Carandang said.
US special forces have been training and arming Filipino soldiers battling al-Qaida-linked extremists in Mindanao for about a decade now.
Carandang said that while on board, no discussions took place about the carrier's participation in the US attack in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and Bin Laden's subsequent sea burial, despite the presence of high-level Philippines officials.
"We didn't even talk about that. It was a tour. The President met with the crew, many [of whom] are Filipino-Americans," he said.
Carandang said Mr. Aquino invited the crew to visit the Philippines as "things are becoming better."
He said the President and his party--which included Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima and Armed Forces Chief Lt. Gen. Eduardo Oban, among others--were on the ship for about three hours. They had lunch on board the aircraft carrier.
Only in movies
Asked why the President had to meet the carrier in international waters, Carandang said "we wouldn't have been able to watch the planes take off and land if it was already docked."
"The President was impressed," said Carandang, noting that it was Mr. Aquino's first time to visit an aircraft carrier.
"You see it in the movies, but it's different when you see it in real life--the planes taking off, the planes landing," he said.
Carandang said the President and his party left Villamor Airbase at 9 a.m. on board a US cargo plane, "smaller than a C-130," and were taken straight to the aircraft carrier.
The flight out took about an hour and 15 minutes while the return flight took 40 minutes.
Amid warnings that Filipino Muslims could be outraged at the presence of the US ship that carried out Bin Laden's burial, the Philippine Navy on Saturday stressed that the Carl Vinson was on a "routine port call" aimed at enhancing relations between allies.
"The Philippine Navy does that too with port visits in the Asian region," said AFP Spokesperson Commodore Miguel Rodriguez.
University of the Philippines professor Clarita Carlos earlier warned that the carrier's presence could agitate Filipino Muslims sympathetic to Bin Laden. She said Filipinos should be sensitive to the feelings of "our Muslim brothers considering that it has been claimed that this is the same US carrier that buried Osama bin Laden's body at sea."
Last week, dozens of Filipino Muslims gathered at the Golden Mosque in Quiapo, Manila, for a "funeral service" and sympathy march in honor of Bin Laden, whom they considered a holy warrior. They denounced, in particular, his burial at sea by the US troops who killed him.
Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte said there was no reason for Filipino supporters of Bin Laden to be upset over Mr. Aquino's visit to the Carl Vinson or its presence in the Philippines.
"The fact that it carried the body should not make them agitated ... It has nothing to do with the President's acceptance of the invitation," Valte said.
"It was merely coincidental. It just so happened that it was scheduled for maintenance," she said.
Rodriguez said the Navy welcomed the visit of the carrier for "the tourism potential it generates, and the manifested strong defense relationship with our defense treaty partner."
The US embassy statement said the US service members in the carrier group will take part in sports events, seminars and community assistance projects with their Philippine counterparts.
It said the visit will contribute about $4.65 million to the local economy from port fees and crew expenditures.
According to a schedule provided by the Navy, the US Navy football team will play a friendly game with a team from the Philippine Navy and Marines.
Other activities include community relations projects, such as minor repairs and painting of school buildings and cleanup drives, including the clearing of the American Cemetery in Clark, Pampanga.
The US Navy troops will also help in the construction of a habitat in Caloocan and visit a children's orphanage in Makati.