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Bush 'upgrades' Philippines

President Bush and the first lady on their way to a state banquet with President Arroyo and her husband.
President Bush and the first lady on their way to a state banquet with President Arroyo and her husband.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. President George W. Bush is upgrading the status of the Philippines to that of a so-called "major non-NATO ally."

Bush announced the change -- which will make the Philippines eligible for closer military ties with the U.S. -- after meeting with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo at the White House Monday.

The Philippines will join nations like Australia, Egypt and Israel, enjoying greater access to U.S. defense equipment and supplies. The United States will also evaluate the Philippines military to help it expand and modernize, Bush said.

The war against terrorism is far from over, he said, describing Arroyo as "a strong ally and friend."

"The Philippine government is strongly committed to defeating terrorists operating in its own part of the world," he said. "The United States is committed to helping when asked."

Arroyo has shown courage in her fight to oust terrorists from the Philippines, and her nation deserves U.S. military and economic aid, Bush said.

Political extremism in the Philippines is closely linked to poverty, Arroyo said, urging Bush to help address economic problems in the country.

"Poverty and terrorism are twin evils that we must fight.

"For the Philippines, we consider the U.S. a strategic partner, not only in security matters, but also in the economy in the fight against poverty."

Crackdown

Arroyo authorized military attacks on Saturday against "embedded terrorist cells" blamed for recent bombings and other attacks in the Mindanao region.

The MILF has been fighting the Philippines government for decades.
The MILF has been fighting the Philippines government for decades.

The Philippines military said Sunday it killed nearly 70 Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels in the first day of the renewed crackdown.

Earlier, Arroyo gave the MILF, the Philippines' largest separatist group, until June 1 to cut its ties to terrorists and hand over members responsible for recent bombings.

The MILF denies any connection to terrorists, despite intelligence and documentation, some of which has been reviewed by CNN, showing the group has operated training camps for al Qaeda in the Philippines.

Arroyo also has targeted the Islamic extremist group Abu Sayyaf. Last year, the United States offered a $5 million reward for the capture of five leaders of Abu Sayyaf who kidnapped three U.S. citizens in 2001.

In addition, U.S. Special Forces have helped train Filipino forces in the southwestern Philippines in a project aimed at wiping out Abu Sayyaf, which has admitted having ties to al Qaeda. The United States has designated Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist group.

"We in the Philippines know what it is to suffer from the hands of terrorism. We know the pain of terrorism," Arroyo said.

Bush will visit the Philippines as part of his planned October trip to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Bangkok, Thailand, he said.


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