- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

From combined dispatches

CEBU, Philippines A U.S. Army helicopter involved in anti-terrorism exercises in the Philippines exploded in midair and crashed into the sea today, a Philippine military spokesman said.

The bodies of three of the 12 persons on board were recovered, and local reports said that two U.S. servicemen had been rescued, although this could not be immediately confirmed.

The MH-47 Chinook was flying in tandem with another helicopter on a transit trip from the southern island of Basilan, where U.S. forces are helping to train their Philippine counterparts to combat Abu Sayyaf rebels.

A search was under way for any other survivors from the crash off the island of Negros.

"Fishermen in the area heard a loud explosion and saw the helicopter plunge into the sea on fire," local military spokesman Capt. Enrico Canaya said in a radio interview.

The helicopter went down before dawn off the coast of Zamboanguita town on the southern end of Negros at 2:30 a.m., another military spokesman, Col. Michael Manquiquis said.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Karen Kelly said in Manila that a U.S. P-3 aircraft and C-130 plane were taking part in a search for survivors. She said she could not confirm reports of survivors or recovered bodies.

The reports were gathered from soldiers in the coastal area near the crash site off central Negros island, the military said.

Negros is on the west of Cebu island, where the Mactan Air Base is being used as an intermediate staging point for U.S. troops and supplies moving to Basilan.

Col. Manquiquis said civilians had reported that fishermen recovered the three bodies of the crew members of the ill-fated Chinook and rescued two survivors.

He did not say where the rescued men were taken.

The Philippine coast guard and military have dispatched ships and aircraft to the site, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said.

A Pentagon spokesman said in Washington earlier that a total of 12 U.S. crew members were on board the helicopter.

Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis said the helicopter crashed about a half-hour after taking off from Basilan island on a "routine transit mission in support of the counter-terrorist mission there."

"The crash occurred as they were leaving Basilan, heading north," he said. "There were no reports of hostile fire."

He said the chopper was on its way to Mactan Air Base, flying in tandem with a second CH-47 helicopter.

The other helicopter remained overhead while other U.S. aircraft were sent to the area to search for survivors, he said.

Local navy personnel in Negros near the site of the crash also have been dispatched to search for survivors, Col. Manquiquis said.

The Philippines and the United States began a six-month joint operation Jan. 31 to crush the Abu Sayyaf, a radical Islamic group that has carried out a spate of kidnappings and has been linked to the al Qaeda terror network of Osama bin Laden.

Up to 660 U.S. troops are participating in the operations. About a hundred U.S. Special Forces are on Basilan, and the other U.S. troops are located at Zamboanga City on the southern island of Mindanao and at Mactan Air Base.

Meanwhile, Southeast Asian ministers meeting in the Thai resort island of Phuket pledged a "new era" of cooperation against terrorism, with plans to link efforts to combat militancy and promote the region as a safe place to visit and invest.

The discovery of suspected terrorist cells in Southeast Asia with ties to Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network threatens to devastate the region's tourism industry and deter much-needed foreign investment.

But at the informal retreat on the Thai island, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers moved to counter a growing impression that the region is a hotbed of terrorism.

The ministers also announced an agreement among the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia that will allow them to pursue suspected terrorists across land and sea borders for crimes committed on each others' territory.

The agreement, which was conceived for the three neighboring nations several months ago, before evidence of a wider terrorist network was revealed, is being adjusted to allow other ASEAN nations to join.

A Thai official said Bangkok was preparing to put its name to the document, but a Singaporean official indicated the island state would stay outside the agreement, which he said was limited to a certain geographic area.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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