U.S. troops move to guerrilla stronghold
ZAMBOANGA, Philippines -- In the most significant expansion of the war on terror since the Afghanistan campaign, U.S. troops have begun deploying to a Muslim guerrilla stronghold in the southern Philippines.
The soldiers are officially on a six-month training mission with the Philippine military on the southern island of Basilan, about 900km (560 miles) south of Manila, where the Abu Sayyaf militant group is based.
Despite the training role, the Americans forces are prepared for action and casualties, a senior U.S. diplomat said.
"There is the possibility of hostile contact but I would personally rate that as a possibility and not a probability," Charge d'Affaires Robert Fitts told reporters in Manila.
There has been much debate in the Philippines about the exact role and capacity the U.S. forces will take in the war games, designed to assist Filipino soldiers in its long-running campaign against the Abu Sayyaf -- a group that has been linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.
The go-ahead for the deployment was effectively given after the controversial terms of reference (TOR) guiding the military exercises were signed by both sides on Wednesday.
About 25 U.S. troops in battle gear and armed with M-14 rifles were flown in MH-470 Chinook helicopters from Zamboanga, the headquarters of the Philippine southern military command, to Basilan on Friday.
Their arrival will prepare the way for some 150 special forces soldiers who will land in Basilan over the next few days. Around 500 other U.S. troops will be stationed in Zamboanga and the more central city island of Cebu.
There are about 6,000 Filipino troops on Basilan battling the Abu Sayyaf who are estimated to number from 100 to several hundred. The group is still holding three hostages -- an American couple and a Filipina nurse – held captive for the past eight months.
Skirmishes, ambushes and close quarter combat between the guerrillas and Philippine forces in Basilan's dense jungle occur on an almost daily basis.
Such combat conditions have heightened Washington's preparedness for casualties, Fitts said.
"I don't say that lightly, I don't mean we are callous about it [but] we understand the implications of coming in," he said.
"We are not going to just turn around and abandon this exercise if there is an unfortunate incident."
Under the TOR guidelines, U.S. troops are allowed to use their firearms for their "right of self defense."
The wording of the TOR has been the subject of scrutiny by groups opposed to the war games because it defines the command relationship between U.S. and Philippine commanders and their troops.
Critics fear the TOR contains gray areas that would justify a U.S. combat rescue mission against Abu Sayyaf guerrillas.
The Philippine Constitution bans combat operations by foreign troops in the Philippines unless sanctioned by a treaty.
The deployment of U.S. forces has drawn criticism in the Philippines, with many attacking Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for asking the U.S. to solve what they say is a domestic problem.
Critics also argue that the training exercise will be used to justify a U.S. combat role in defiance of the Philippine constitution.
Arroyo has condemned such critics as anti-national and "lovers of terrorists."
The Philippine leader also scoffed at rumors Osama bin Laden had escaped Afghanistan and made it to the southern Philippines.
"There is no room at the inn for imported terrorists," Arroyo said at a news conference.
"It's kind of hard for him to go to Basilan, when whoever who claims to be his friend is on the run or holed up."
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