U.S. military to train Filipino soldiers

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

MANILA, Philippines -- U.S. forces will provide guerrilla-style combat training to Filipino soldiers battling Muslim and communist insurgents and al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islam-iyah militants, officials said Monday.

The anti-terror maneuvers from July 26 to Aug. 14 will bring U.S. Special Forces trainers to Carmen in North Cotabato province, a new southern training ground for the Americans. Muslim separatists and Marxist rebels are active in the region, military officials said.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, one of Washington's closest Asian allies, allowed American troops to arm and train Filipino soldiers battling Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremist guerrillas in southern Zamboanga city and nearby Basilan island two years ago.

Defense Undersecretary Edgardo Batenga said the counterterrorism training in Carmen, 560 miles south of Manila, would be attended by more than 150 Filipino soldiers and more than 20 American counterparts, and would be confined to military camps and areas. The Americans will not engage in any combat operations, military officials said.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim separatist group holding peace talks with the government which operates in North Cotabato, will be notified of the maneuvers to avoid accidental encounters, Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita said.

Batenga said North Cotabato was chosen to expose the participants to a region where military operations are taking place.

Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said his group, which has a camp with about 1,000 armed guerrillas in a town near the area of the U.S. training, had no problem with the military maneuvers as long as the MILF is not attacked.

"As long as they do not touch us, nobody should fear anything," he said.

Kabalu said that if the Americans look for foreign extremists, they would not find anyone because the guerrillas don't give refuge to terrorists.

Small units of Filipino soldiers will be taught unconventional warfare tactics, night combat movement, sniping and surveillance techniques, military spokesman Lt. Col. Daniel Lucero said.

The Philippine military will decide later where to deploy the U.S.-trained soldiers, but they would likely go into areas where Abu Sayyaf and communist rebels are active and suspected Jemaah Islamiyah foreign militants are believed to be secretly training, Lucero said.

A separate group of American troops will provide counterterrorism training and undertake civic projects with about 800 Filipino troops in a program called Bayanihan, or "lending hands," in southern Zamboanga city from July to December, Lucero said.

During a visit to Zamboanga last week, U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Thomas Fargo expressed concern over the presence of Jemaah Islamiyah militants in the country's south.

Philippine defense officials suspect up to 40 Jemaah Islamiyah militants are hiding in the southern Philippines. The al-Qaida-linked group has been blamed for terror plots and deadly bombings in Southeast Asia, including deadly blasts that killed 202 people in Bali, Indonesia, in 2002.

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