MANILA: Separatist guerillas warned yesterday that deploying US combat trainers near their southern Philippine strongholds could draw the visiting forces into local clashes, resulting in American casualties.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said on Friday she has made a pretty final decision to change the venue of a planned counter-terrorism exercise involving US and Filipino troops from the violent southern island of Jolo because of public opposition there.
That gave rise to the possibility of holding the manoeuvres elsewhere in the country's impoverished south, including provinces where government troops are battling the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been fighting for independence for decades.
Arroyo said many southern provincial governors had asked her to transfer the exercise to their areas. Recent fighting has raged in North Cotabato and Maguindanao provinces, where the MILF has a strong presence.
Arroyo said she would not mind shifting the manoeuvres to North Cotabato, about 920km south of Manila.
Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said the guerillas oppose an American military presence near their strongholds but would not ask that the exercise be moved.
The Americans are not our enemies, but if they're drawn in encounters and suffer casualties, it'll be the full responsibility of the Philippine government,'' Kabalu said by telephone.
We should not be blamed.''
Kabalu said the MILF did not consider Washington an adversary, citing a meeting in Manila in January between US Embassy officials and representatives of an MILF-established agency to discuss possible American help in rehabilitating Muslim areas devastated by years of war.
MILF chairman Hashim Salamat also sent a letter to US President George W. Bush last January to clarify American concerns about the group.
Kabalu declined to disclose the contents.
US and Philippine defence officials were discussing where to hold the joint exercises, called Balikatan, or shoulder to shoulder.''
A six-month exercise last year on southern Basilan island was credited with breaking up the extremist Abu Sayyaf group and aiding in the capture and death of some members and leaders. AP
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