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Philippine cops hold riot drills as Boracay closure is challenged

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Mock protesters scuffling with anti-riot police during a security-measures exercise on Wednesday.

Boracay

PHILIPPINE police preparing to shut down the Boracay resort island staged drills in riot gear on Wednesday, startling the laid-back beach community - even as workers there mounted a last-ditch effort to halt the six-month closure.

President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the holiday destination off-limits to tourists from Thursday, saying the tiny island has become a "cesspool" tainted by dumped sewage.

In their drills, police officers in full riot gear clashed with bottle-throwing people playing the part of protesters on the white-sand beach, while concerned residents watched. "I was alarmed there were so many soldiers and police," said resident Dory Gaitano. "I thought they'll be only demolishing establishments with violations. Why are there countless soldiers?"

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But a very real clash was brewing on Wednesday, as Boracay residents and workers asked the Philippine Supreme Court to halt the closure.

Lawyers representing the group said: "It is, mainly, a constitutional challenge to the powers of the executive to arbitrary decision making.

"If Boracay is closed to tourists, these workers will lose their source of income, and they would not be able to feed their families."

Boracay, known as the crown jewel of Philippine tourism, is famed for its powdery white sand, but unchecked tourism and environmental degradation have made it far from the tropical paradise it was decades ago.

The authorities say some of the hundreds of tourism-related hotels and restaurants use the island's drainage system to send untreated sewage into its surrounding turquoise waters.

The closure threatens the livelihood of 17,000 hotel, restaurant and other tourism workers, plus about 11,000 construction workers.

Last year, the island welcomed two million visitors, who pumped roughly US$1 billion in revenue into the Philippine economy.

Mr Duterte has said he will release two billion pesos (S$50.8 million) to help the workers, who say they haven't seen a penny yet.

Souvenir vendor Jenelyn Besana said: "My son has epilepsy and I am paying for his treatment. The government is offering a job, but I am still waiting: what job and when? I will take any job as long as I have a daily income."

Restaurants and bars have put up signs offering discounts, and most items on the menu are already unavailable; sunglasses, selfie sticks and Boracay souvenir shirts are being sold at half price.

Vendor Jenie Dagunan said: "We call it the closure sale. We used to sell key chains in a 'buy one, get one' promo. But now, it's 'buy one, get 10'.

"We can't eat these bracelets. We might as well turn them into money." AFP