US troops to be deployed in Sulu

MANILA: Philippine President Gloria Arroyo said yesterday she had approved the deployment of US troops to a stronghold of the Muslim Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group in Sulu. 

The group has been linked by Washington and Manila to the al-Qaeda terror network and has been termed as terrorists by both governments. 

Speaking at an event to mark a World War II battle in Capas, Arroyo said Sulu would be among areas to be covered by joint Philippine-US military exercises this year. 

The exercises, known as Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder), were held last year on Basilan island near Sulu. This year, the exercises “will be held in many places, including Sulu,” Arroyo said. 

Previous proposals to hold the exercises in Sulu have been met with opposition from local groups, including certain Philippine officials. 

There had also been technical disagreements between Manila and Washington over the terms of reference governing the exercises. 

Under Philippine laws, foreign troops cannot engage in combat in this country and American troops in previous exercises could only fire back in self defence. 

Arroyo did not say how the disagreements had been resolved or when American soldiers would be sent to Sulu or how many would go there. 

But she said the “anti-terrorism exercises will improve the capability of our soldiers to gain ground” in Sulu. The president made no mention of US soldiers engaging in combat. 

“We acknowledge the opposition to this exercise. We shall take this into consideration,” in forging the rules governing the deployment of the Americans, she said. She said Sulu “is strategically important and that is why Balikatan will partly be held there,” citing the continued activities of “terrorists”, particularly in Jolo. 

Despite opposition to the US deployment Arroyo said: “The local governments want it and this is important for our national security. 

“We are determined to cut down the entire body of terrorism in the country and the Sulu connection is vital to this objective.” – AFP 

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