- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2002

CEBU, Philippines U.S. troops are in the Philippines to help keep the al Qaeda terrorist network from securing a base and will stay only as long as they are welcome, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday.
"We know [al Qaeda] is a very vast terrorist network, and it needs to be destroyed," Gen. Myers said. "Wherever they are, here in Southeast Asia or in the Middle East, we need to destroy them so they can't bring harm to innocent civilians or attack at random."
Gen. Myers spoke to reporters over the weekend in Zamboanga City in the far southern Philippines, where a joint U.S.-Philippine military exercise is targeting the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group. The Muslim secessionists-turned-kidnappers have been holding American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham and Philippine nurse Ediborah Yap hostage for more than a year.
Before flying to Zamboanga, the U.S. military chief met in Manila with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Washington's staunchest Southeast Asian ally in the war on terrorism.
Some 660 U.S. soldiers here in Cebu and farther south in Zamboanga and on Basilan Island, where the Burnhams were last seen, are ostensibly serving as advisers.
But there is growing speculation that the troops, authorized to return fire, will begin to play a greater role in patrols in the dense jungles of Basilan, the island-province 550 miles south of Manila that gave birth to the Abu Sayyaf more than a decade ago.
"The [hostage] situation is the responsibility of the government of the Philippines and its armed forces," Gen. Myers said. "We will advise and assist in any way that we are asked to do."
Paul Burnham, whose son and daughter-in-law were snatched from a plush resort May 27, 2001, said in a telephone call to a Philippine radio station last week that the Abu Sayyaf had broken a promise to release them and the nurse earlier this month.
While the Mr. Burnham made no mention of a ransom payment, The Washington Times reported earlier this month that U.S. officials helped facilitate the payment of $300,000 in private funds to the kidnappers.
Speculation is rife in Manila that the rebels now want more money, fearing in part that middlemen including military officers are likely to take a cut as the money works its way through channels.
The Abu Sayyaf garnered some $20 million in ransom payments for a group of mostly foreign hostages taken from a resort in neighboring Malaysia two years ago. Negotiators and other intermediaries are rumored to have taken a sizeable cut.
In addition to the soldiers involved in effort to track the Abu Sayyaf and free the Burnhams, some 340 Navy Seabees and their Marine escorts are in Basilan working on infrastructure projects. Another 2,700 American soldiers are participating in annual war games in the northern Philippines.
With the exception of Afghanistan, it is the largest U.S. military deployment since the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York.
A recent survey by the respected Social Weather Stations found that some 75 percent of Filipinos support the deployment in the southern Philippines. But the growing military presence has convinced many nationalists that the United States is trying to regain a foothold in its former colony.
"There is absolutely no intention for the U.S. to establish its presence or a base in the Philippines," Gen. Myers said. "We are here on behalf of the Philippine government, to train with them, to assist and advise, and that is what we are doing."
Washington maintained its largest overseas air and naval bases, as well as 37,000 troops, in the Philippines until 1991, when the Philippine Senate rejected a treaty renewing the lease on the bases.

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