U.S. troops in Philippines score failures and successes

Tuesday, June 4, 2002

MANILA, Philippines -- Five months into the U.S. military mission in Philippine Muslim rebel country, the troops have failed to rescue two American hostages and the guerrillas still taunt them over radio from jungle hide-outs.

But U.S.-built roads creep deeper into the rebels' island base, Filipino troops proudly display American grenade launchers and the rebels are clearly on the run.

On Saturday, about 1,000 U.S. soldiers, including 160 Green Berets, 300 engineers, pilots and support staff, began their fifth month training and advising local troops to better fight the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist group linked to the al-Qaida network.

When U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz arrived in the Philippines to visit his troops on Monday, his officers could point to no single overwhelming victory. And he said the U.S. and Philippine governments are considering extending the mission beyond the end of July.

An extension could renew the political controversy that greeted the Americans' arrival as leftist and nationalist groups said the deployment violated the sovereignty of the Philippines, a U.S. colony until after World War II.

But by the second month of the deployment, small daily protests had dwindled and opposition politicians had largely stopped mentioning the troops.

The 10-year-old Abu Sayyaf remains a political and economic headache for the Philippines.

Since an Abu Sayyaf band in a speedboat abducted 17 Filipinos and three Americans from an island resort on May 27, 2001, tourism has plummeted in the archipelago of 7,000 islands and investment has dropped.

When U.S. troops started their mission in February, residents predicted speedy victory over the 100 or fewer guerrillas remaining from a force of 1,000 after a year of army offensives.

On hostages' island

The group still holds Wichita, Kan., missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, likely on the 17-square-mile southern island of Basilan -- the same island where the Green Berets are staying.

In June 2001, the guerrillas beheaded an American captive, Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif. Others escaped or were released, some reportedly for ransom.

The Abu Sayyaf have become publicly more cocky after surviving four months of the mission despite U.S. satellite technology, night-vision equipment and spy planes.

"They cannot do anything to us," said Abu Sayyaf leader Abu Sabaya in an interview in May by satellite phone with Radio Mindanao Network. "We prefer to prolong the hostage crisis and to give more embarrassment to the super power."

The mission terms bar Americans from shooting except in self defense.

But officers point to successes they say will defeat the extremists in the long run and enamor residents, ensuring the guerrillas don't rise again.

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