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25 Special Forces troops arrive in Philippines

The first group of U.S. military trainers arrived in the Philippines last month
The first group of U.S. military trainers arrived in the Philippines last month  

MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- An advance team of 25 U.S. Special Forces troops has arrived in the southern Philippines, the first element of a joint U.S.-Philippine effort to rout out the extremist Muslim guerrilla group Abu Sayyaf, according to U.S. military sources.

The U.S. military contingent in the area could expand to 500 troops, among them 100 Green Berets, and include up to 10 transport and combat helicopters as well as C-130 planes, U.S. officials said.

"This is a large group of people and a considerable amount of equipment," said one military official.

The contingent follows a scouting party of 19 soldiers who traveled to Zamboanga last month to survey the region and the Philippine military's ability to fight terrorism.

Although the Americans will be armed, Philippine officials said there were no plans for them to take a direct combat role.

"They will be here to train, but not go to the front lines," Philippine armed forces chief Gen. Diomedio Villanueva told reporters. "This is to enhance the capability of our forces in fighting terrorism."

U.S. military sources told CNN that the "guidance" outlining the mission "allows" for "armed U.S. observers" to accompany Philippine forces to battle areas if requested.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would not say whether U.S. forces would be directly involved in Philippine antiterrorist operations, saying the Americans "have been involved in training and to my knowledge, that's what we're still doing."

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Based at the Philippine military southern command in Zamboanga, the U.S. troops plan to work with the Philippine military in a training program dubbed "Balanced Piston," which teaches jungle warfare and survival techniques.

The program will mainly target Abu Sayyaf guerrillas who operate in the southern Philippines and took dozens of hostages last year, including an American couple.

The initiative is the first Philippine-U.S. effort specifically directed at Abu Sayyaf, which Philippine officials have long claimed is supported by al Qaeda.

Abu Sayyaf leaders say they are fighting for a separate Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines.

Government officials argue they are in fact little more than a brutal kidnap-for-ransom group, infamous for beheading their hostages.

Several individuals loyal to al Qaeda and linked to terrorist plots against the United States are thought to have lived and trained in the Philippines.

Mohammed Sadeek Odeh, convicted for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, studied engineering in Manila before turning to radical Islam and joining al Qaeda.

Ramzi Yousef, convicted for masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, allegedly hatched a plan while studying in Manila to blow up a dozen U.S. airliners over the Pacific.

Long relationship

The infusion of new equipment and training for the Philippines is part of a $4.2 billion security assistance package from the United States, aid that was approved after September 11.

"The United States has a long relationship with the Philippines," Rumsfeld said. "Some time back, I signed understandings that we would provide some training and assistance to the Philippine government ... to deal with the terrorist problem that they have."

In a separate development, the Philippine armed forces said it will receive five UH-1H (Huey) helicopters as military surplus from the United States later this month.

The Philippine army received 100 trucks and a C-130 cargo transport aircraft from Washington -- a total of $22.1 million in military aid -- last year.

-- CNN's Barbara Starr and Jamie McIntyre and journalist Cecilia Lazaro contributed to this report.




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