- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

CEBU, Philippines As U.S. Special Forces close in on the Abu Sayyaf terrorists holding two American hostages on Basilan island, there are increasing concerns that the conflict could escalate into a battle with other rebel groups.

"There are other armed groups in the area," said Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. "So while we initially engage 20 [gunmen], after one hour or two hours of firefight, we find ourselves engaged with 100."

The Abu Sayyaf, set up more than a decade ago with aid from Jamal Mohammed Khalifa, a brother-in-law of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, operates mainly on two islands in the southwestern Philippines Basilan and Jolo.

The islands also are home to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a long-established Muslim secessionist group that signed a peace treaty with the government in 1996, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a breakaway faction that is negotiating with the government.

Elements of those groups have come to the aid of the Abu Sayyaf in past encounters with Philippine soldiers. There are about 1,000 MILF fighters on Basilan and another 500 members of the MNLF. The Philippine military estimates that fewer than 100 Abu Sayyaf guerrillas are on Basilan, but 1,000 or more are active on Jolo, farther south in the Sulu Sea.

An MILF spokesman last month warned that his men would fire on U.S. troops that wandered into rebel strongholds. Ten Americans have died since the joint exercises began, but those casualties came in a helicopter crash at sea.

Before the joint exercises began in mid-February, Philippine Vice President Teofisto Guingona had expressed concern about the potential for a widening conflict and sought assurances that U.S. forces wouldn't engage the communist New People's Army (NPA) or the MILF.

Mr. Guingona says he was assured by James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, that the exercises would focus only on the Abu Sayyaf.

"We would like to confine the exercises, in relation to the Abu Sayyaf, in Basilan," Mr. Guingona said in Manila after a phone conversation with Mr. Kelly. "We do not want to initiate activities against the NPA or the MILF, because our policy is to forge peace with them."

Despite those assurances, there are increasing concerns that the ongoing battle to hunt down the Abu Sayyaf in which elite U.S. troops are acting as advisers could mushroom into a larger conflict.

"That's what makes this fight so difficult," says a former U.S. Marine with broad experience in the Philippines. "Once you get out in those jungles, you can't ask for [identification]. If these guys decide to fight together, you can't pick out one from the other."

The U.S. advisers are permitted to return fire in self-defense. Surveillance equipment provided by the American forces seem to be helping tighten the net around the Abu Sayyaf. Local politicians say they have been sounded out by Abu Sayyaf contacts about a surrender proposal.

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