- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) — Roughly 750 U.S. military personnel will deploy shortly to the Philippines to open a new front against the Abu Sayaff terrorist group on Jolo Island, assisting the Philippines Armed Forces in an unprecedented joint counter-terrorism operation, according to defense officials.

The deployment is open-ended, a defense official said.

The group will include 350 special operations forces personnel who will engage in direct combat with Abu Sayaff for the first time. Last year, around 600 U.S. personnel deployed to the Philippines but served in an advisory capacity only.

This deployment will pit U.S. forces directly against fighters from Abu Sayaff, which the U.S. intelligence community says has ties to al Qaida.

"We have never done this before in this context," the defense official told United Press International.

That effort, known as Balikatan '02, was part of a $25 million counter-terrorism aid package for the Philippines. It resulted in the capture or death of dozens of Abu Sayaff members and repulsed "hundreds" south from Basilan Island to Jolo, according to the defense official. Basilan Island is now under the control of the Philippine government.

Abu Sayaff was formed in 1991 after it broke off from another Islamic separatist group, but according to the U.S. State Department, its first large-scale action was a raid on the town of Ipil in Mindanao in April 1995, which left 50 people dead.

In April 2000, a faction of the group kidnapped 21 persons, including 10 foreign tourists, from a resort in Malaysia. Also in 2000, the group abducted several foreign journalists, three Malaysians, and an American citizen.

In May 2001, the group kidnapped three U.S. citizens and 17 Filipinos from a tourist resort in Palawan, Philippines. Several of the hostages, including one U.S. citizen, were murdered.

Last year, Abu Sayaff captured three missionaries. A rescue attempt resulted in the death of two, including American Martin Burnham.

Abu Sayaff is believed to be responsible for the motorcycle bomb that killed a U.S. serviceman last year in Zamboanga. The group is estimated to have several hundred members, but as many as 1,000 might have joined in the last two years to profit from kidnapping ransoms, according to the State Department.

In addition to the special operations forces on Jolo and the roughly 400 support personnel who will be based in Zamboanga, around 1,000 Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit will be based off Jolo on the USS Essex. They will act as a quick reaction combat or evacuation force if needed, and will provide air support, medical services and command and control to the troops on the ground.

Initial assessment teams are moving to the Philippines "within days."


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