- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

CEBU, Philippines It hardly seems a fair fight: 6,000 heavily armed government troops hunting down a rag-tag gang of fewer than 100 Muslim terrorists on an island just 30 miles wide.

Yet after more than eight months, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has been unable to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas and free two American hostages. Now, U.S. special forces have arrived to help out.

"It's tough terrain down there," said Clarita R. Carlos, a professor at the University of the Philippines who specializes in defense and security issues. "But ordinary people are wondering why our guys can't get the job done."

The U.S. troops are here to participate in a six-month joint military exercise in the southern port city of Zamboanga and on the island province of Basilan, 17 miles away, where the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf are holding American missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham and local nurse Deborah Yap.

The U.S. deployment, which eventually will include some 650 soldiers, officially is here in an advisory role. But the soldiers are armed and authorized to fire in self-defense. Some Philippine politicians and many nationalists see the training exercise as a thinly veiled attempt to get U.S. forces on the ground to engage the Abu Sayyaf and free the Burnhams.

It's a charge Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes rejects, although he welcomes "any help" he can get.

On a recent visit to the Armed Forces Southern Command, a small group of foreign reporters were ferried from Zamboanga to Basilan in hand-me-down Huey helicopters.

More than 30 years ago, those same helicopters flew U.S. soldiers into combat in Vietnam. These refurbished units aren't equipped to fly at night. And troops on Basilan have none of the high-tech night-vision equipment needed to track the 100 or so Abu Sayyaf fighters who constantly move under the cover of darkness.

A quick trip across Basilan shows just what difficulties the poorly equipped soldiers face. The jungle is so dense it is often impossible to see more than 10 feet ahead. The lush forest canopy makes it impossible to spot smoke rising from a campfire. Mortar rounds explode harmlessly in the densely woven tree tops.

The cultural and political terrain on the large southern island of Mindanao and on surrounding islands, a majority Muslim region before an influx of Christian migration that began in the 1950s, can prove equally daunting.

"Basilan is a very complex province," said Glenda Gloria, co-author of "Under The Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao."

"The Abu Sayyaf have relatives in those remote areas who look out for them. The provincial governor had ties to the group years ago. Local businessmen often pay for protection. Then military commanders come in from the northern Philippines, and they just don't understand the local situation."

The Philippine army is still reeling from accusations that it let the Abu Sayyaf slip away last June after the fighters were trapped in a Basilan hospital. They had taken refuge there with the Burnhams and the other hostages taken from Palawan island.

Abu Sayyaf leaders have plenty of money. They earned nearly $20 million in ransom, most paid by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, for the release of a group of tourists, most of them foreign, abducted from a Malaysian resort the year before the Burnhams were kidnapped.

The money allowed the group to recruit additional members, as well as buy high-powered weapons, a speed boat and sophisticated communications equipment.

The eight-month siege by the Philippine army has killed or scared off hundreds of Abu Sayyaf rebels on Basilan.

[Hundreds of U.S. troops on anti-terror joint exercises in the northern Philippines, more than 600 miles north of Basilan, were confined to barracks after gunmen shot at one of their planes and killed an American civilian in separate attacks.

[Communist, as opposed to Muslim, guerrillas are known to operate in the area.]

A hard core of 100 or so guerrillas remains on Basilan with their hostages; an additional 1,000 or more men, who form a separate Abu Sayyaf faction, thrive on Jolo, an island farther south.

Despite protests from nationalists and some establishment politicians who believe their government hasn't done enough to clarify the scope of U.S. involvement, many analysts both here and abroad think the American presence is important.

"The fact that these exercises are taking place sends a very strong signal about a mutual commitment to rout out terrorism," Amos A. Jordan, a former U.S. deputy undersecretary of state who is now an analyst at the Pacific Forum, said in a telephone interview. "If these guerrillas are half-smart, they won't challenge this group."

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