MANILA: The Philippines will not allow US troops to go into combat against Muslim rebels, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said yesterday, a day after a bomb at a southern airport killed 21 people, including an American.
A man identified as an Abu Sayyaf leader by the ABS-CBN television network said in a telephone interview his group had carried out Tuesday's attack in Davao.
But military officials were sceptical, saying the Abu Sayyaf blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist group with links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network was engaging in propaganda.
Underscoring fears of a wave of attacks, a small home-made bomb exploded but caused no casualties at a grocery store in Cotabato, about 170km west of Davao.
The Philippines is fighting four rebel groups seeking an Islamic state in the south.
American help includes a team of US special forces now training local units in counter-terrorism tactics in the city of Zamboanga, but the Philippine constitution explicitly bans foreign troops from engaging in combat.
Arroyo, who condemned the Davao airport bombing as a brazen act of terrorism which will not go unpunished, appeared to be heading off suspicions that the attack could be used as a pretext to escalate the role of the US soldiers.
We welcome their assistance, Arroyo told reporters after visiting survivors in Davao as investigators interrogated nine suspected Muslim guerillas in connection with the country's worst terror attack in more than two years.
Another series of exercises is planned for the southern Sulu islands, a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf group, but Washington's assertion that US troops would fight the Muslim guerillas unleashed a storm of controversy in the Philippines.
Defence Secretary Angelo Reyes said one act of violence would not derail the new exercises.
The death toll from the bomb, which tore into dozens of people huddled in an airport shelter during a downpour as they waited for arriving friends and relatives, rose to 21 when an 18-year-old man died of his wounds on Wednesday.
Police said 114 people were wounded, several dozen of them seriously by shards of metal and glass.
Arroyo met grieving families in Davao, talked to survivors and laid a flower in a shallow crater blown into the concrete floor of the shelter.
An hour after Tuesday's blast in the country's second-biggest city, a bomb went off outside a health centre in the nearby town of Tagum, killing one person and wounding three.
Military officials pointed the finger at the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim guerilla group operating on the southern island of Mindanao.
Arroyo said nine suspects were in custody. Interior Secretary Jose Lina earlier told reporters those being interrogated were identified as members of the MILF.
The group, which has repeatedly said it targets only the military, denied any involvement.
The 21 people killed in the airport blast included an American missionary, whom the Davao Medical Centre named as William Hyde, 58, from Iowa. Three Americans two missionaries and an infant -- were hurt. Reuters
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