- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 4, 2002

CEBU, Philippines U.S. troops will get closer to the battle front and are likely to extend their stay in the southern Philippines where they are advising local soldiers fighting Muslim terrorists, U.S. and Philippine officials said yesterday.
"There was consensus that training will be intensified and pushed forward to the company level," said a spokesman for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo after a meeting with the visiting U.S. deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz. "This is closer to the action."
More than 1,000 U.S. troops are here on a six-month joint training exercise supporting local soldiers battling the Abu Sayyaf, a group of Islamic separatists-turned-kidnappers who are holding hostage two Americans.
The U.S. troops, including 160 Green Berets, have been training large groups of local soldiers. By beginning to accompany smaller groups of Philippine troops into the field, the Americans are more likely to encounter the rebels who have been holding American missionaries Garcia and Martin Burnham for more than a year.
"We are not talking of sending in U.S. troops to do the job of the Philippine armed forces," Mr. Wolfowitz said before meeting the president Sunday night.
Instead, Mr. Wolfowitz said, the United States is interested in "improving the capability of the Filipino armed forces to do the job themselves."
Mr. Wolfowitz said his boss, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, must decide whether to seek an extension of the U.S. presence in the southern Philippines, where many of the country's 4 million Muslims live. Mrs. Arroyo, in a weekend radio address, indicated that an extension might be possible.
While many nationalist groups oppose the U.S. presence, Americans have been welcomed in Basilan, the island province in the Muslim south where the Burnhams are being held hostage.
In the town of Lamitan, residents on Sunday marked the first anniversary of an Abu Sayyaf raid on a local hospital. After five days on the Sulu Sea, the heavily armed kidnapers arrived in the remote area on June 2, 2001, with 17 Filipinos and three Americans, including the Burnhams.
They engaged Philippine troops in a firefight before inexplicably slipping through a military cordon, escaping into the jungle with their hostages and new victims taken from the hospital. One of those hospital workers, Philippines nurse Ediborah Yap, continues to be held along with the Burnhams. An American tourist taken from the diving resort, Guillermo Sobero, was beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf last June.
"We are uneasy with the thought that the Americans who are giving us moral and civic support will be leaving after their stay of six months," the petition said. "We are insecure with the thought that their absence will bring us back to square one. Please, Madame President, prolong the Americans' stay with us."
In addition to the U.S. troops, Washington has provided arms and other equipment to the ragtag armed forces of the Philippines as part of the U.S. war on terrorism. Last week, the State Department offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of any or all of five top Abu Sayyaf leaders.


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