- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

CEBU, Philippines The vanguard of an elite group of 160 U.S. special forces will arrive in the southern Philippines today where they will join Philippine soldiers in the hunt for Abu Sayyaf guerrillas holding two American hostages.

The "Alpha" team members will begin patrols within days in the dense jungles of Basilan island, a Muslim stronghold where the secessionist guerrillas have held American missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham for nearly nine months.

The American forces are here in an advisory role, but they will be armed and allowed to fire back if attacked. While recent surveys have shown that the U.S. military presence has overwhelming support among Filipinos, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has taken a battering from nationalists for her decision to invite in the Americans.

Last week, Mrs. Arroyo sparked criticism when she declared in her weekly press conference that anyone opposed to the U.S. presence was "not a Filipino."

"If you are not a Filipino, then who are you? A protector of terrorists, a cohort of murderers, an Abu Sayyaf lover?" she asked. "You care more for terrorists than for your own soldier, who defends you. You care more for bandits and the camp of Osama bin Laden than your country, which seeks to help you."

The Abu Sayyaf, which means "bearer of the sword," received early support from Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Jamal Mohammad Khalifa, a bin Laden brother-in-law who was based in the Philippines through the mid-1990s, provided seed money to the Muslim secessionists, according to Philippine intelligence sources. The group also had ties to Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the jailed mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

The group, which has turned to kidnapping to support its activities, has little support outside a tiny extreme fringe among the 4 million Muslims in the Philippines. Most Filipinos blame the group's kidnappings for tarnishing the country's image, scaring off both foreign investment and tourists.

"No one likes the Abu Sayyaf," said a Western diplomat, who requested anonymity. "But [Mrs. Arroyo] sometimes comes off as arrogant. She deserves credit for making the decision, but she doesn't need to get down in the gutter with her critics."

Mrs. Arroyo, whom Time magazine dubbed the Philippines' "Iron Lady" in a recent Asian edition cover story, has been President Bush's staunchest Asian ally in the war on terrorism. But her unflinching line has riled not only critics but also supporters, many of whom see her mimicking Mr. Bush's now-famous line: "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."

In preparation for the U.S. deployment, which will include some 400 troops on Basilan and in the nearby port city of Zamboanga and another 250 further north in Cebu, Gen. Charles Holland, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Special Operation Command based at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, made a surprise visit to Zamboanga earlier this week for talks with Philippine Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Diomedio Villanueva and Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu, the commander of Philippine Southern Command.

The arriving troops will first receive "cultural sensitivity" training after politicians and anti-American activists here reacted strongly to newspaper photos earlier this week showing U.S. soldiers in civilian clothes waving assault rifles outside a Zamboanga bank while a colleague was inside exchanging currency.

The U.S. forces are arriving here at a time when the Abu Sayyaf seems to have been seriously weakened by the nearly year-long pursuit by Philippine soldiers.

Basilan Gov. Wahab Akbar, an Abu Sayyaf founder who left the group nearly a decade ago before it became involved in kidnapping, was quoted earlier this week saying the bandits have sent feelers about surrender.

Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf commander known popularly as Abu Sabaya, is reportedly ill and looking for a way out.

"They're very tired in the mountains. They have nothing to eat and they're getting sick" Mr. Akbar told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Mr. Akbar said the rebel leader, who led the May 27, 2001, raid in which the Burnhams were taken, has turned the hostages, including Philippine nurse Deborah Yap, over to his brothers. Past reports of imminent surrender have proved false.

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