HONOLULU (AP) - Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said his country needs more American military help to quell Muslim extremists in the southern Philippines but wants the deployment of U.S. forces delayed until their exact role can be determined.
Americans cannot engage in "offensive combat operations'' on Philippine soil, Reyes told t a news conference after meeting Monday with Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, and before leaving for Washington to meet with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"We say that we would rather hold deployment in connection with Balikatan 03-1 until after the final agreement on exactly the size and shape is reached,'' Reyes said.
Last week, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo announced approval of the counterterrorism exercise codenamed "Balikatan 03'' in Sulu province, the southern stronghold of the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf, as part of annual U.S.-Philippine military maneuvers scheduled to start next month.
Reyes said the operation would be Philippine-led and U.S.-supported.
"We don't envision U.S. forces being in charge, calling the shots,'' Reyes said.
He added, however, that Philippine troops need the Americans to defeat the rebels.
"We need help,'' he said. "We're doing the job the best way we can, but definitely we are (without) the equipment that we need.''
Reyes, accompanied by top Philippine military officers, said he would discuss terms of the U.S. deployment with Rumsfeld on Friday.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis acknowledged that discussions are continuing but indicated Monday that the exercises are ready to proceed.
"The United States and Philippine governments have agreed to conduct combined operations in the southern Philippines to disrupt and defeat the Abu Sayyaf group,'' he said.
Davis said it has been agreed that the operations would be led by the Philippine military with "the assistance of U.S. forces.''
U.S. officials said last week, after Arroyo's announcement, that American forces would work alongside Filipino troops taking front-line combat roles for the first time.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the latest operation was "another example of where the world stands united'' in the battle against terrorism.
A U.S.-backed Philippine offensive last year was credited with breaking up the main Abu Sayyaf force, which is loosely linked to al-Qaida and notorious for kidnappings and killings.
But the remaining rebels moved to Jolo Island, where the new operation is expected to take place.
Reyes insisted that terms of the U.S. involvement have yet to be worked out."That's what we will discuss,'' he said.
On the Philippine side, he said, three criteria must be met: No offensive combat role for U.S. troops, the Americans acting in a supporting role led by Filipinos, and no actions that violate Philippine law.
On the American side, he said, there are concerns over force protection and the right U.S. soldiers will have to defend themselves.
Reyes said he had an "intense discussion'' with Fargo but did not disclose details.
"The discussions are still ongoing,'' Reyes said, adding that U.S.-Philippine military cooperation is "made more urgent and relevant because of the global threat that faces the entire world today.''
"We see this cooperation and mutual support continuing and being further enhanced in the future,'' he said.
Reyes said Abu Sayyaf once numbered up to 1,200 rebels and has now been reduced to about 450.
U.S. Army Secretary Thomas White, in Honolulu last week, said he did not know details of the U.S. operation planned for the Philippines but "the level of efforts are being escalated.''
U.S. forces in the Philippines will continue their training activities, he said, "but they will have quick reaction force responsibility ... to respond to any contingencies that might occur during the operation.'' - AP
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