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US takes War to Philippines

American and Philippine military forces are beginning joint exercises which Washington says signal a new phase in the war on international terrorism.
Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 03:02 GMT
US takes terror war to Philippines

American and Philippine military forces are beginning joint exercises which Washington says signal a new phase in the war on international terrorism.

The exercises, which will eventually involve 650 US troops, including special forces, are being staged close to the stronghold of the rebel Abu Sayyaf, a group which Washington says has links to Osama bin Laden.

Officially, the US soldiers will have no combat role during their stay; however there are misgivings in some quarters about where the military exercises might lead.

A ceremony at an air base in the town of Zamboanga is marking the formal start of joint exercises expected to last six months or even longer.

During that time, US trainers, including some from the special forces, will be instructing their Philippine counterparts in the latest techniques and gadgetry of counter-terrorism.

Those at least are the declared goals of their mission, the BBC's Simon Ingram in Zamboanga says.

Government troops have been battling unsuccessfully for years against a variety of insurgent groups in the dense and lawless jungles of the southern Philippines.

The most notorious of all is the Abu Sayyaf, bandits who claim to espouse the goal of an Islamic state and whom the Pentagon insists, without much evidence, have links to Osama Bin Laden.

'Insidious' objectives?

Critics say Washington's objectives are more insidious and that the presence of foreign forces violates the Philippine constitution.

"They [Filipino forces] will do the fighting, not the American soldiers," President Gloria Arroyo said during a visit to Canada this week.

Thus far, the protests have been confined to the capital. On Wednesday several dozen students burnt a US flag outside the US embassy in Manila.

But not all Filipinos are opposed to the presence of US troops.

In the south, the majority Christian population are only too keen for the Americans to eradicate a security menace that has blighted the region's development, our correspondent says.

One undeclared goal of the Americans is likely to be the liberation of an American couple kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf last May.

They are being held in the rugged island of Basilan, where US combat techniques are likely to be put to a stern test in conditions that, for some observers, are uncomfortably reminiscent of the Vietnam war.
 
 

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