TABIAWAN, Philippines Grenade blasts ripped through a market and a movie theater in the southern Philippines yesterday, killing at least five persons as more U.S. troops arrived under tight security to join a growing American force on a new front in the anti-terror campaign.
The blasts one of them a few miles from a base where U.S. military personnel are staying underscored dangers the soldiers could face while advising and training Philippine troops fighting the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim rebel group that U.S. officials say has been linked to al Qaeda.
Two C-130 transport planes, with 30 to 40 special forces troops aboard, flew in from Okinawa, Japan, the second landing on an unlit runway in Zamboanga City. The soldiers were unloaded with the engines running and the aircraft took off again.
The troops are joining 250 Americans already in Zamboanga for a six-month exercise focusing on Basilan, an island about 20 miles south of the city; the guerrillas have been holding an American missionary couple captive for months there.
The U.S. contingent is to grow to 660 in the coming weeks, including about 160 special forces troops who are the only American personnel allowed to travel to Basilan. An advance team flew to the island yesterday to get setup at a Philippine army camp.
One grenade exploded at dawn on Jolo, an island 75 miles southwest of Basilan where an Abu Sayyaf faction has a presence, killing at least five persons and injuring more than 40 near a crowded market, authorities said.
Hours later, a grenade exploded at a movie theater in downtown Zamboanga, the region’s largest city, injuring at least five persons watching “The Lord of the Rings.”
The theater is about four miles from the Philippine military’s Southern Command headquarters, where the U.S. personnel are staying.
Philippine officials said they suspected the Abu Sayyaf but that the blasts would not affect the exercise.
The director of the exercises for the Philippine side, Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Teodosio, said security for the Americans was adequate and would not be increased.
“We are confident with our force-protection plan,” said a U.S. military spokesman, Sgt. Michael Farris.
Military officials said the U.S. troops, who are permitted to use their weapons only in self-defense, are prepared to handle threats from the Abu Sayyaf as they increase their presence on Basilan.
“Considering that they are American soldiers, the threat is there. We have anticipated them and we are prepared to face the threat,” said Col. Alexander Aleo, a Philippine army commander.
Early yesterday, a Philippine navy ship unloaded about two dozen four-wheel-drive pickup trucks and other equipment that were taken to the 25-acre Philippine army camp on Basilan, nestled in hills above the straits that separate it from Zamboanga.
The U.S. soldiers pitched tents near basketball and tennis courts, where they stocked up on food and water. Some set up laptop computers and communications equipment in a grandstand.