MANILA: Philippine leaders battled to quell growing political turmoil triggered by US' disclosure that hundreds of US special operations troops are on the way to fight alongside the Philippine military against ruthless Abu Sayyaf rebels.
Unlike previous arrangements in which US troops played advisory roles out of the line of fire, American troops this time will join Philippine soldiers in direct combat on southern Jolo island, US defence officials said.
Another 1,000 US Marines will be stationed off the coast of the jungle island, ready to give military and logistical support in the campaign against the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group.
Street protests, likely led by the vice president, and a legal challenge seem certain in this former American colony, where the Supreme Court already ruled that US troops can only shoot in self-defence and the constitution prohibits the presence of foreign military facilities and troops unless covered by a treaty.
Philippine officials chose their words carefully on Friday when asked about the US reports.
I am categorically saying anything they say that contradicts the constitution and laws will not materialise, said Defence Secretary Angelo Reyes.
Pressed on whether it was possible for US troops to have combat roles in the country, he replied, That is a matter for lawyers to decide.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did not comment, but said last year she believed a combat role for US troops in the Philippines was legal.
Last year, protesters gathered almost daily outside the US Embassy while American troops conducted six months of counter-terrorism training with the Philippine military near a southern combat zone.
The under-funded, under-equipped Philippine military claimed it decimated the Muslim extremist group on Basilan island during the massive US-supported offensive coinciding with that training.
But the military conceded it underestimated the remaining strength of the Abu Sayyaf, whose campaign of mass kidnappings and hostage killings since 2000 has scared away foreign tourists and investment.
Pentagon officials said they have information indicating a link between the Abu Sayyaf and the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic extremist network Jemaah Islamiah of Indonesia might be stronger than earlier believed.
Manila expelled an Iraqi diplomat last week, saying an Abu Sayyaf member called him shortly after an October bombing whose victims included a US Green Beret.
The government is battling another Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which some officials threatened to label a terrorist group after accusing it of massacring 14 villagers and setting off a pair of bombs that killed two this week. AP
Did you find this article insightful?