Setback for U.S.-Philippine exercises
By CNN's Maria Ressa
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (CNN) -- Controversial training exercises between U.S. and Philippine troops will begin a day later than scheduled as officials scramble to finalize guidelines for them.
The opening ceremonies for the anti-terrorism exercises, initially set for Wednesday, are now slated for 9 a.m. Thursday Philippine time.
Philippine National Security Advisor Roilo Golez said the start was pushed back, in part, to finalize the details of the exercises.
The team needed phone lines, a training center and a laundry, said U.S. military spokeswoman Maj. Cynthia Teramae.
Around 660 U.S. soldiers are expected to take part in the joint military exercises dubbed as "Balikatan 02."
They are there to set up a counter-terrorism training camp for Philippine soldiers near Zamboanga on the southern island of Mindanao.
This is just across a narrow straight from the island base of the Abu Sayyaf Islamic extremist group -- who are reported to have ties with the al Qaeda terror network.
The group has gained a reputation for kidnapping scores of civilians -- beheading at least a dozen of them, including American tourist Guillermo Sobero.
Two Americans and a Filipino hostage remain in their hands, after being held hostage for some eight months.
But the presence of several hundred U.S. troops in the Philippines has angered Muslim lawmakers, who have put pressure on President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Because the Abu Sayyaf's links to al-Qaeda are vague, the presence of the troops has led some to believe that the United States is taking its global anti-terror campaign from Afghanistan to Southeast Asia.
They have questioned both the legality of their presence and the extent of U.S. participation in the exercises.
Such exercises are unprecedented in this country -- not only because of the number of troops, but also their length of stay, the use of live ammunition and the use of live targets.
Protest groups contend the exercises may lead to the setting up of virtual U.S. military bases in the country and signal renewed American intervention in Philippine affairs.
The Public Interest Law Center (PILC) and several militant groups are preparing to petition the Supreme Court to issue a temporary restraining order on the exercises.
The Philippine constitution states that a formal bilateral treaty is needed before foreign troops can be allowed in the country.
But Philippine Armed Forces Chief General Angelo Reyes has justified the presence of the U.S. troops by invoking the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
For its part the Philippine government says the military exercises have wide public support and the blessing of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.
The Philippine president too has defended her stance.
"Many people may think the soldiers are there to do combat," Arroyo said during an interview with CNN's Maria Ressa earlier this month.
"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."
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