MANILA (Reuters) - The United States will keep custody of a Marine named as a suspect in the murder of a transgender Filipino he met in a bar,
the head of the Philippine military said on Tuesday, with one U.S. warship staying on during the investigation of the crime.
The commander of U.S. Pacific Command this week ordered the USS Peleliu and another warship to stay in the former U.S. base of Subic Bay until after the end of the investigation into the murder of Jeffrey Laude, 26, who was found strangled on Saturday in nearby Olongapo City. [ID:nL3N0S835W]
U.S. troops have been taking part in a 10-day military exercise with the Philippines. Four other U.S. ships in Subic Bay that were not part of the exercise were allowed to leave.
"Under the Visiting Forces Agreement, the custody of the erring soldier stays with the Americans," General Gregorio Catapang said after meeting the U.S. Pacific commander, Admiral Samuel Locklear.
Foreign ministry official Eduardo Oban, the executive director of the Visiting Forces Agreement Commission, said one U.S. warship could leave the Philippines but the other, the USS Peleliu, would stay on during the investigation by police and the U.S. naval criminal investigation service.
A murder case could be filed against the American soldier as early as Wednesday, a police source said, adding that authorities were waiting for completion of a post-mortem report.
The Philippines will have criminal jurisdiction, Catapang added, meaning that local courts would try the serviceman.
He said the region's two oldest security allies met on Tuesday to finalize more than 400 military activities next year under a mutual defence treaty, focusing on maritime security and humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations.
"This will not affect our relationship with the United States, inasmuch as the offense was not committed during the Balikatan or Phiblex exercise but during an administrative break for that soldier," he said, in a reference to the exercise.
The case was also discussed when Catapang and Locklear met Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
At that meeting, Locklear offered his regrets for the unfortunate incident, expressed sympathy with the victim's family, and sought a full investigation, Catapang said.
The U.S. Navy Times said a U.S. Marine was in the custody of American military officials aboard the USS Peleliu in connection with the case.
The Philippine government should take custody of the serviceman, however, said a nationalist group that opposes a new 10-year defence cooperation pact signed by Manila and Washington in April.
The Philippine government was protecting American interests, not its own sovereignty, it said.
"Our proposal is simple," said the group's leader, Renato Reyes. "Surrender the American soldier to Philippine authorities, then allow all U.S. ships and military personnel to leave and never come back."
Presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma assured the family of Laude, who also went by the name Jennifer, that the Philippine government would make every effort to secure justice.
"Our government is fully committed to ensure that the rights of our citizens are properly protected," he added.
(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)