Philippines, U.S. target militant group
By Maria Ressa
MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- An advance team of U.S. troops are on the ground in the Philippines to plan for war games "with live targets", suggesting that a Philippine extremist group could be next in the war against terrorism.
The U.S. troops are to establish a counter-terrorism training camp for Philippine soldiers near Zamboanga on the southern island of Mindinao, across a narrow straight from the island base of an Islamic extremist group reported to have ties with al Qaeda.
The arrival fueled speculation that the Philippines could be the next battleground in the campaign against terrorism declared by President Bush after the horrific terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11.
A spokesman for Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said 116 U.S. troops had arrived in the northern Philippines for a training session due to begin Friday at Nueva Ecija.
Another 12 to 16 U.S. troops were said to be in Zamboanga planning for the war games to begin in February.
"These will be the first war games with live targets," said Rigoberto Tiglao, the presidential spokesman, referring to plans for the forces to go after Abu Sayyaf rebels, who are fighting for a Muslim state in the southern Philippines.
Abu Sayyaf, an extremist group held responsible for numerous bombings, kidnappings and killings, operates from Basilan Island, where the group holds the last three of dozens of hostages it took in four separate incidents beginning last May.
Two of the hostages are American missionaries and the third is a Filipino nurse. The rebels have beheaded more than a dozen hostages, including American tourist Guillermo Sobero.
Philippine sources said the United States wanted to send around 1,000 troops to participate in the operation, but the Philippine defense minister said the Philippine government had agreed to 650 U.S. troops.
In addition to training, the American troops are expected to accompany their Filipino counterparts on patrol in rebel areas and will be armed and prepared to defend themselves.
Philippine newspapers were speculating over a nationalist backlash facing Arroyo for allowing the U.S. troops to take part in an operation in the Philippines.
The Philippine constitution prevents international forces from participating in combat missions on Philippine soil.
Opposition politicians have been saying that Arroyo faces the risk of impeachment for cooperating with the United States and allowing the troops to take part in the operation.
The presence of U.S. forces in the Philippines has a contentious history.
Following the peaceful overthrow of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in the mid 1980s, a grassroots groundswell arose against the presence of international troops on the islands -- particularly U.S. forces at two bases.
Eventually, an eruption of Mount Pinatubo destroyed one of the bases, and the Philippine Senate refused to renew the U.S. lease on the second base.
U.S. forces left in 1992.
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