- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2002

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines U.S. troops yesterday began training Philippine soldiers in the fight against Muslim extremists, a mission that an American diplomat said would help eliminate "terrorist parasites."

A group of 36 American and 100 Philippine troops held a ceremony opening the mission on a parade square in the southern city of Zamboanga, where more than 100 U.S. soldiers are already deployed.

About 500 more Americans, including special forces, are to arrive in coming weeks for the six-month mission to train Philippine soldiers fighting the Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and currently holds an American missionary couple hostage.

Philippine officers said the U.S. soldiers will mainly train the local troops on helicopter night flying and in other tactics involving sophisticated equipment.

But some special forces will be authorized to shoot in self-defense as they accompany Philippine soldiers into combat zones on the islands near Zamboanga, where Abu Sayyaf operates. Opposition politicians say the mission violates a constitutional clause that restricts foreign combat troops on sovereign soil.

Robert Fitts, the U.S. charge d'affaires in the Philippines, told the troops at the Zamboanga ceremony that the mission will "help eliminate the terrorist parasites who threaten Filipinos as well as the United States."

Mr. Fitts countered the impression by some politicians and opposition groups that President Bush's State of the Union address issued a threat to intervene aggressively in the Philippines' war on Muslim extremists.

In his address, Mr. Bush said that if countries do not deal with terrorist activities on their soil, "America will."

Rep. Saturnino Ocampo, a former spokesman for Marxist rebels, said Mr. Bush's statement "exactly portrays the arrogant stance of the U.S. to justify its unilateral action and intervention in other countries in the name of fighting terrorism."

But Mr. Fitts said yesterday that Mr. Bush was not referring to the Philippines.

"Nobody can doubt that the Philippine government and the armed forces of the Philippines is extremely serious in combatting terrorism," Mr. Fitts said.

Mr. Fitts also said the exercise was only one of 16 or so planned for this year between U.S. and Philippine soldiers, and one of dozens more in recent years.

About 2,000 U.S. Marines are expected in the Philippines in April for the next joint exercise.

In Manila, a scuffle broke out between police and about 50 leftists in front of the U.S. Embassy in the latest of small, almost daily demonstrations against the exercise. Police made no arrests and the protesters later dispersed without further incident.

Another group of 30 persons burned a U.S. flag and a placard with a picture of Mr. Bush.

Officials said they overcame last-minute snags on the terms of the current training mission, particularly assurances sought by the Philippines that the Americans would not engage in combat.

The Abu Sayyaf, thought to number as many as 800 fighters mainly on two southern islands, kidnapped Wichita, Kan., missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham on May 27 along with Corona, Calif., resident Guillermo Sobero and 17 Filipinos from a beach resort.

They beheaded Mr. Sobero and several other hostages. The rest escaped or were released, some reportedly for ransom.

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