- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

MANILA U.S. soldiers scouted out locations yesterday on war-torn Basilan island to train Philippine troops battling Muslim extremists, as Philippine senators questioned the American presence.

The Americans at least one of whom was carrying a pistol also visited a Philippine military base on the island and met with commanders supervising more than 7,000 troops fighting Abu Sayyaf rebels, said Capt. Charlemagne Batayola, of the Philippine southern military headquarters.

With the United States extending its war against terrorism to the islands of the southern Philippines, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the mission to train Philippine troops against Abu Sayyaf which has been linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network was not a prelude to an American combat role.

"It's quite different. This is nothing like Vietnam," Mr. Powell told ABC's "Good Morning America" yesterday. "There is no intention for them [U.S. troops] to become active combatants. They are trainers. That's what the Philippines asked for, and that's what we provided."

Still, the Philippine defense minister said President Bush had offered to send U.S. soldiers to fight and that Manila refused the offer.

The U.S. soldiers were flown yesterday by Philippine Air Force UH-1H choppers to the base in the town of Isabella on Basilan, a remote island covered with jungles and mountains, where the Abu Sayyaf have been fighting the military. Capt. Batayola did not say how many U.S. soldiers went to the base, but a television news station that filmed some of them said there were at least seven.

"I'm working here with my counterparts in the Filipino army and we're going over logistics issues and things based upon the upcoming exercise," U.S. Army Maj. Charles Van Auken, a logistics officer, told ABS-CBN television.

Next month, about 660 U.S. troops, including 160 U.S. Army Special Forces, are to start training Philippine soldiers. While barred from fighting by the Philippine Constitution, some of the Americans will be in combat zones and carry weapons for self-defense.

The Abu Sayyaf, thought to have about 800 fighters on Basilan and nearby Jolo island, is holding three hostages, including two missionaries from Kansas Martin and Gracia Burnham and a Filipina, nurse Deborah Yap.

The guerrillas have defied the military for a decade, staging attacks and disappearing into the jungle. They have grown to infamy in recent years for kidnapping dozens of foreigners and beheading some of their victims including Corona, Calif., resident Guillermo Sobero, who was kidnapped with the Burnhams last May. Abu Sayyaf claims it is fighting to carve a Muslim state out of the southern Philippines, but the government regards them as ransom-seeking bandits.

The possibility of Americans shooting at Filipinos has angered many Muslims, nationalists, leftists and mainstream politicians in the Philippines.

Senate President Franklin Drilon, a supporter of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, filed a resolution yesterday seeking an inquiry into the controversial exercise, focusing on whether the arrangements were constitutional.

"Serious questions have been raised by various quarters about the legality of the military exercises in view of the involvement of armed American troops in pursuing the Abu Sayyaf terrorists," he said.

Opposition Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, a former general, also said the Senate could start an inquiry into the exercise as early as Tuesday.

At a meeting with Mrs. Arroyo at the White House in November, President Bush offered to send U.S. troops to join in combat against Muslim extremists, but the Philippines rejected the offer, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said yesterday.

Instead, the Philippine government accepted a $100 million package of military equipment and training to help fight Abu Sayyaf, he said.

"President Bush said: 'We are offering American forces to fight in the Philippines.' He said that in the White House. I was there," Mr. Reyes said. "Arroyo said, 'No, no. We don't need American forces because our soldiers are good.'"

It was the first time a Philippine official said Mr. Bush directly offered U.S. troops to fight on Philippine soil.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan declined to comment on the report.

Mr. Reyes said the U.S. government also said it was willing to risk casualties, and promised to allow the Philippine officers complete control of combat even if Americans are under fire.

"In the event that somebody on their side would get injured or worse, killed first, they are willing to accept," Mr. Reyes told DZRH radio. "Second, to respond to the situation, the Philippine forces will be the ones in charge. They cannot tell us: Wait a minute, we want to pursue. The response will be by the Philippine forces, commanded by Filipino commanders. That is clear."

National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said the U.S. and Philippine governments are still deciding exactly what the Americans can do in combat areas.

Mr. Golez said fewer than 200 U.S. soldiers will be allowed into combat zones, split into groups of 12 for every 400 or so Filipinos. The Americans are to train Filipinos in night helicopter flying, psychological operations and intelligence work.

"My worry is this: What if a Filipino farmer or even an Abu Sayyaf is killed by an American bullet fired by an American trooper?" Mr. Biazon, the opposition senator and former general, said on Wednesday. "What would be the reaction of nationalists?"

"If this is training assistance, fine," he said. "But don't do it in a combat zone."

The United States military was a powerful force in the Philippines for nearly a century, beginning in 1898 when the U.S. Navy sank the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. Spain ceded the islands to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War.

The Philippines gained independence in 1946, and granted the United States control of about 20 military installations. But a nationalistic Philippine Senate refused in 1991 to extend the lease on the Subic Bay Naval Base, and the Navy abandoned the installation by that time its last in the Philippines in 1992.

Now, resentment of the United States is growing among some of the leftist groups that helped bring Mrs. Arroyo to power last Jan. 20. With the one-year anniversary looming, they have promised to step up protests against her and the military exercises.

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