MANILA, Apr 18 (Reuters) The Philippines said today it reduced charges against three US Marines over the alleged rape of a Filipino woman last year, making them accessories to a fourth sailor accused of carrying out the attack.
Prosecutors originally charged the four Marines with raping the 22-year-old woman in a van before leaving her on a roadside in November after they had taken part in military exercises with Philippine soldiers.
The justice department reviewed the charges after an appeal by defence lawyers before the formal arraignment, which has been postponed from last month.
''Based on my appreciation of the evidence, these three people should not be charged with rape because the girl, in all her statements, said she was molested by only one,'' Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez told reporters.
''I downgraded them to accessories,'' he said. ''They were there, they have knowledge and they just abandoned her.'' The rape case has prompted small protests outside the US embassy in Manila and calls by some politicians for the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement to be amended or scrapped.
But analysts see little long-term damage to ties between the United States and the Philippines, a former US colony and Washington's closest security partner in Southeast Asia.
The rape trial has also been delayed by the withdrawal of the judge handling the case, who said his voluntary move was prompted by a motion from the victim's lawyer.
To avoid further delays, the Supreme Court moved the trial to a court in Manila from Olongapo City, northwest of the capital.
The US embassy has ignored an arrest warrant for the four Marines, saying the Visiting Forces Agreement allows the United States to maintain custody of sailors until judicial proceedings have been completed. (With reporting by Jesus Llanto) Reuters OM RS1743