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Arroyo wins backing for Abu Sayyaf hunt

U.S. soldiers in Zambo
An advance group of U.S. soldiers are stationed at the Edward Andrews Air Base in Zamboanga City  

MANILA, Philippines -- Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has won the support of the country's highest security body amid growing public opposition over the participation of U.S. troops in efforts to crush a Muslim militant group in the south of the country.

The National Security Council threw their support behind the government after Arroyo assured them that no American troops would be allowed to engage in direct combat with the Abu Sayyaf Group.

"We would like to state categorically that the president's policy decision is that the Americans are not going to be engaged in combat, period," said National Security Adviser Roilo Golez.

Arroyo convened the council on Wednesday amid widespread criticism over her decision to allow U.S. troops to conduct a joint military exercise with Philippine soldiers in an actual combat zone.

Philippine Vice President Teofisto Guingona, who was reportedly close to resigning, backtracked on his position and has decided to keep his post. Guingona earlier slammed Arroyo's decision, saying the exercises were a clear violation of the country's constitution.

Under Philippine laws, foreign troops are not allowed to engage in combat in the country.

Guingona still hints at misgivings but has accepted the Justice Department's position that Arroyo had "valid authority" to proceed with the exercise.

CNN's Maria Ressa takes a look at a poor Philippine neighborhood that sympathizes with the Muslim militant group Abu Sayyaf.

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"Regardless of any feelings that I have, we have to respect the official stand of the Department of Justice," Guingona, a former justice secretary, said after the meeting.

Presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said the president was pleased over the consensus among the members of her administration.

The council includes Arroyo, the vice president, defense and security officials, majority and minority leaders in Congress, and former presidents.

Growing opposition

Some 660 U.S. soldiers are expected to take part in the joint military exercises dubbed as "Balikatan 02."

The exercise will be conducted around the Southern Philippine island of Mindanao where the Abu Sayyaf has several camps.

The group is believed by intelligence officials to have ties with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, accused of masterminding the September 11 terror attacks on the U.S.

In an effort to quell growing public opposition, security officials said the exercise would only for last six months.

Golez said the exercise would also be held "in utmost transparency," adding that a presidential human rights committee would be set up on Basilan to receive any complaints.

Public opposition grew after it was revealed the U.S. troops would be allowed to the front lines and carry weapons for self-defense, and that the exercises would last for a year.

Concerned groups hold a rally outside the presidential palace against U.S. military intervention in the pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf  

On Wednesday, baton-wielding police clubbed student activists who staged a protest in front of the Presidential Palace.

Anti-American groups have also staged protests in front of the Philippine U.S. Embassy in Manila.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States is sending American trainers to work alongside the Philippine army to help in dealing with the Abu Sayyaf.

"Their problem -- terrorism inside the Philippines -- threatens Philippine citizens, but also American citizens or other citizens who might be tourists ... and we are missing two citizens at the moment, and we want to get our citizens back," Powell said.

"We want to help the Philippine government defeat this kind of terrorism."




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