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Arroyo defends U.S. troops' presence

U.S. troops
Legal questions have been raised against the heightened presence of American troops in the Philippines  

By Rufi Vigilar

MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has defended her decision to allow U.S. troops to deploy in the southwest of her nation, saying that the Americans were present for "mutual training" with Philippine forces in their battle against extremist groups.

But Philippine Muslim lawmakers have warned that the presence of more than 600 U.S. troops has stirred misgivings among Filipino Muslims and could derail government efforts to forge lasting peace in the region.

Arroyo said the international response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 let her know the Philippines has allies in a long battle against "terrorism in southwest Philippines."

"Many people may think the soldiers are there to do combat," Arroyo said during an interview with CNN's Maria Ressa.

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"They are not there to do combat. They are there to do training, you see. It is joint military exercises intended to be mutual training."

But an aide to Arroyo said Wednesday that the advance team of U.S. troops on the ground in the south of the country will plan for war games "with live targets," suggesting that Philippine extremist group Abu Sayyaf could be next in the war against terrorism. "These will be the first war games with live targets," said Rigoberto Tiglao, the presidential spokesman.

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.

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.

Muslim congressman Benasing Macarambon told CNN that the presence of U.S. troops in Mindanao, where the Filipino Muslim majority live, "is running down the spine of all Muslims in the Philippines."

"It is inflaming the feelings of Muslims" and "could jeopardize peace talks with the MILF (the separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front)," Macarambon said.

Another Muslim congressman, Hussin Amin, told CNN that "written protests among Muslim civilians could go to the streets."

Amin added he is supporting a resolution in the Lower House calling for an inquiry into the deployment of U.S. troops in the south.


Three separate resolutions questioning whether the presence of U.S. troops to help combat Abu Sayyaf guerrillas abide by the constitution were filed in both houses of congress late Wednesday.

Lawmakers, including Senate President Franklin Drilon and Senator Rodolfo Biazon, a former armed forces chief, point to the unprecedented number of U.S. troops in the country, and the length of their stay.

Philippine military officials say some 160 to 190 U.S. troops will monitor the training of Philippine forces within combat zones in Basilan -- an Abu Sayyaf stronghold some 560 miles (900 kilometers) south of Manila.

Abu Sayyaf
The Abu Sayyaf are holding two Americans, along with a Filipina nurse  

The larger main body of 550 U.S. troops is expected to arrive before February, the officials added, and would remain from six months to a year. Confidential sources say American troops could reach one thousand.

The Philippine government has invoked two military agreements with the United States -- in 1951 and 1998 -- to justify the presence of U.S. troops, adding that it welcomed any congressional inquiry to discuss the "legal intricacies" of the matter.

"We do hope though that critics of the training exercise do not forget its prime objective, which is to help us get rid of brutal terrorist kidnappers, and to allow all of us to live in peace," an official statement said.

Terrorist tag

The presence of American troops in the Philippines is the first military effort outside Afghanistan in line with the U.S.-led global campaign against terrorism, following the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The U.S. government has offered the Philippines millions of dollars in military and social funding, in exchange for its full support for the anti-terror campaign.

But Congresswoman Loretta Ann Rosales, author of a Lower House resolution to probe the presence of U.S. troops, told CNN that "the Abu Sayyaf is being used as an excuse to re-establish U.S. military presence in the region," after the Philippine Senate voted to dismantle U.S. military bases in 1991.

Rosales also objected to allowing U.S. troops to fire "in self defense" at Abu Sayyaf guerrillas.

"If there's an American casualty, what would stop them (U.S. military) from increasing American military intervention in the area," she said.

"From the humanitarian viewpoint, the live war exercises could inflict civilian casualties," she added.

The U.S. government has linked the Muslim separatist group to the al Qaeda terrorist network of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.

The last clear link was established in 1995 when Ramzi Yousef and his group plotted the assassination of Pope John Paul II during a Manila visit. Yousef was later convicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

The Abu Sayyaf have held captive for more than seven months two Americans and one Filipino, the last of scores of hostages seized in separate incidents last year.




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