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Philippine leader confident in antiterror fight

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo indicated Tuesday her country does not need additional U.S. help in its fight against a separatist Islamic rebel group with ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.

But, President Bush said, if more help is needed in the fight against the Abu Sayyaf group, he is ready to provide it.

The two presidents spoke to reporters after a meeting at the White House.

"I am willing to work with her in any way that she wants to," Bush said in response to a question about whether he would put ground troops in the Philippines.

"She's got a clear vision about how to fight Abu Sayyaf and ... we will cooperate in any way she suggests."

He added, "I have asked her point-blank what help does she need, and she says she's got ... a competent military. She's confident her military can deal with Abu Sayyaf."

Arroyo said the 50-year-old mutual defense treaty between the two countries is providing all the help the Philippines needs.

"We have a framework on how to fight the Abu Sayyaf," she said, "... and the framework covers what we need in terms of diplomatic assistance, technical assistance, assistance in winning hearts and minds, and military assistance.

Philippine separatists may merge 
Abu Sayyaf: Militants in the Philippines 

"We have advisers from the U.S., we have equipment from the U.S. -- all of these are part of our mutual assistance treaty. It just so happens that now the mutual defense facilities are being used in the fight against terrorism."

Earlier in the day, Arroyo met with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. Afterward, she said part of the focus of her talks in Washington would be to "look at where to apply pressure ... to be domestically, regionally and globally more effective."

"In our war against terrorism in the southwest part of our country -- which borders on common seas with Malaysia and Indonesia -- we have a strategic framework for fighting terrorism, and this is a framework our officials are discussing with the United States," she said.

Next phase in antiterror war?

David Grange, a retired U.S. Army major general, said suggestions the Philippines could be the next phase in the antiterrorism campaign might be misleading.

"I think we've already phased into it," said Grange, now a CNN military analyst.

Grange said the archipelago's location makes it a likely place to expand the campaign against terrorism.

"The Philippines is kind of segregated from other regions. It's not like Iraq or Syria or Iran, where it's all connected and you could end up with a regional conflict with an unfriendly government," he said.

Grange said radicals in the Philippines have taken Americans hostage. They have plotted to destroy American airliners, he said, and they may have been linked to the so-called "I love you" computer virus.

Investigators discovered the connection between Abu Sayyaf rebels and al Qaeda in 1995, amid a probe that led to convictions in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that killed six people and wounded more than 1,000 others.

Abu Sayyaf professes to fight for an Islamic state. Its main activity in recent years has been kidnappings for ransom.

The group is holding an American couple and at least eight Filipinos hostage on Basilan island in the southern Philippines.

On Monday, a splinter faction of the Moro National Liberation Front -- once the country's largest Muslim secessionist group -- reneged on its 1996 peace agreement with the government and attacked Filipino troops on the southern island of Jolo.

Reports that the MNLF faction is joining forces with Abu Sayyaf are likely to strengthen Arroyo's request for increased U.S. aid.

Longstanding ties

Any U.S. action in its antiterrorism campaign likely would be supported by the Philippine government, given the longstanding ties between Washington and Manila, Grange said.

"I think we'll support these guys with intelligence. We'll support them with some kind of equipment, we'll support them with some advisers, maybe," Grange said.

"We can take that one on while we concentrate on another target, once this Afghanistan thing's over."

The Philippines played a major role in U.S. presence in the Pacific for nearly a century. American forces captured the islands in the war with Spain in 1898, put down a short-lived insurrection and established a mostly self-governing territory.

In 1935, the islands became a self-governed commonwealth in preparation for independence, which was interrupted by the Japanese occupation in World War II.

The Japanese targeted the islands because of their raw materials and the presence of major U.S. bases. Japan held the islands from 1942 to 1944, when they were liberated by American troops.

The Philippines gained independence in 1946, but the U.S. military maintained a significant presence throughout the Cold War and supported Philippine governments against communist insurgencies. The last American installation closed in 1994.


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