Manila spurns US combat role

ZAMBOANGA: US and Filipino troops formally launched new anti-terrorism exercises yesterday as the Philippines flatly rejected any combat role for the Americans in fighting Abu Sayyaf rebels linked to al-Qaeda. 

Soldiers armed with assault rifles and army snipers atop a three-storey house guarded a military camp in Zamboanga, where the two militaries vowed to crush the Abu Sayyaf guerillas. 

“This is part of the US$25mil (RM96mil) security assistance but it's a small cost to pay to combat terrorism,” US Air Force special forces Col Douglas Lengendfelder told 100 Filipino and a dozen US soldiers at the opening ceremony. 

Philippine southern military commander Lt Gen Narciso Abaya said the training – involving close-quarter combat, demolition and survival techniques – symbolised the two countries' determination to defeat terror. 

“The terrorists are still on the loose ... We have to put an end to this menace with finality,” Lt Gen Abaya said. 

About 300 US soldiers, including 70 special forces trainers, will take part in the exercises to be held in the largely Christian city of Zamboanga. 

Actual training will start today.  

But controversy swirled over a US plan to field about 1,750 American troops, including elite units, in operations against the Abu Sayyaf, a mainly kidnap-for-ransom group linked by Washington to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. 

In a major strategic shift from training to fighting, some 350 US Special Operations soldiers will be sent to Jolo island near Zamboanga to help subdue the rebels, Pentagon officials said in Washington on Friday. 

In Manila, President Gloria Macapagal Aroyo's spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, said the Philippines would reject any US request to send American troops to fight the guerillas. He said the Americans would only train, advise and support local soldiers. 

“If they will ask for that (combat role), we will not allow it because that is against the constitution,” Bunye said, referring to a constitutional ban on foreign combat troops. 

Jolo is a jungle-clad, mist-shrouded island 960km south of Manila and a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, which enjoys strong support from the local Muslim population. 

Manila newspapers warned the deployment of US troops for offensive operations would violate this country's constitution, which bars foreign combat troops from Philippine soil. 

“The Pentagon disclosure is only the latest confirmation that, indeed, the Ugly American is back: loud, self-absorbed, a gratuitous bully but this time wearing a 10-gallon hat (cowboy hat),” the Philippine Daily Inquirer said in an editorial yesterday. 

A counter-terrorism exercise held on Basilan island near Jolo last year and involving more than 1,000 US soldiers was described by the two militaries as a success for helping drive the bulk of Abu Sayyaf guerillas out of Basilan.  

The Abu Sayyaf, which claims to fight for an Islamic state in the south is estimated to number between 300 and 400 fighters. – Reuters  

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