WASHINGTON: The United States is sending 750 ground troops to the Philippines to conduct joint operations with Filipino combat patrols fighting guerillas, a Pentagon official said on Thursday.
The Pentagon official said the contingent of 350 special operations forces and 400 support personnel would begin arriving in the Philippines soon to support a Philippine-led offensive against the Abu Sayyaf guerillas.
“In this effort, the US soldiers will work side-by-side in an offensive with the Philippine military,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Asked whether the US ground forces would be involved in combat, the official responded: “They are going to conduct joint operations to disrupt and defeat the Abu Sayyaf group.”
“There is a greater number (of US forces) that will be offshore in ships in a variety of capacities should they be needed,” the official added.
The official said the American troops would be under US command and that an advance military assessment team would be arriving in the next few days to begin laying the groundwork for the operation.
Some 1,300 US troops were deployed to the Philippines last year to take part in anti-terrorism training exercises and to advise the Philippines military in their effort to subdue Abu Sayyaf. US troops were not allowed to fire their weapons, except in self-defence, during the six-month Basilan exercises in a country where foreign troops are banned from engaging in combat.
Numbering about 400, the Abu Sayyaf is mostly a kidnap-for-ransom gang claiming to fight for an Islamic state in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines.
The United States has blacklisted the group as a terrorist organisation with links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.
The Philippines government announced on Monday that the United States was sending troops to a rebel stronghold in the southern Philippines for a training exercise.
In Manila, Philippine President Gloria Arroyo's spokesman insisted yesterday that US troops would not engage in combat.
Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the American troops would only engage in training and observing local forces in their hunt for the Abu Sayyaf.
“In other words, no combat troops. Everything will be for training and advice,” Bunye said in reaction to comments made by a US defence official.
The US special forces are due to begin training local units in Mindanao on Monday.
Other exercises are planned for Sulu, the heart of Abu Sayyaf country. The start date is being kept under wraps but likely is to be some time in March. – Agencies