U.S. troops schooled in Philippine culture
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines -- They are hardened combatants tasked to open a new front in the global campaign against terror.
But battle-trained U.S. soldiers were not deployed to the southern Philippine island of Basilan until they were given a little lesson on cultural sensitivity.
"We were informed of the unique culture here," US Special Forces Lt. Col. David Maxwell told newsmen at the Philippine Army's 103rd Infantry Brigade headquarters in Basilan.
"One thing we have learned in the sensitivity seminar is not to publicly show affection. We know we should not extend our hand unless the people offer theirs," he added.
The Americans were briefed on the customs and traditions of the Yakan Muslims, which make up 60 percent of the population in Basilan.
The seminar was deemed a must to avoid American soldiers taking part in a military exercise geared against the Abu Sayyaf extremists ruffling the sensitivities of the locals.
Aside from publicly displaying affection, the American were also warned against pointing guns at men and women.
And in case a tornado strikes, the Americans were told not to be shocked to see men rushing out of their houses swinging machetes wildly -- and in some cases firing gun shots in the air -- for it is the natives' way of taming the wind.
"And never hold out your hands to greet a Muslim woman unless she gives you a sign that she is ready to shake your hand," Noriam Ladjagais, a guidance counselor at a local school, told a seminar on cultural sensitivity held for U.S. troops on Sunday.
Already, the military war games have roused the emotion of nationalists who accuse the Americans of infringing on Philippine sovereignty.
Human rights groups are also concerned that the presence of U.S. forces could lead to an increase in human rights violations in the predominantly Muslim island-province.
"I can assure you that these are men of probity here. We respect the sovereignty of the Philippines. I expect our men to treat every Filipino with dignity and respect and I don't expect that we'll have any incidents," Maxwell said.
The arrival of Maxwell and his men raised to 51 the total number of US soldiers in Basilan where the Abu Sayyaf is holding hostage an American missionary couple and a Filipino nurse.
The U.S. soldiers' first encounter with Basilan residents, in the mainly Christian provincial capital of Isabela on Sunday, went off smoothly.
Shortly after two Chinook helicopters took the first batch of special forces to a nearby military camp, three vans carrying U.S. and Filipino soldiers unexpectedly rolled into the town center where they inspected a sports field for a possible landing strip.
The Americans, in camouflage uniform, wore bullet-proof vests, and carried assault rifles and mini-machine guns.
The town stirred. Housewives, teenagers and children streamed out of their houses and gawked at the strangers.
After the inspection, the Americans got into the vans and headed back to camp. One soldier lifted his arms and smiled at the crowd.
The crowd, made up of Christians and Muslims, waved back.
Basilan, one of the poorest provinces in the mainly Roman Catholic nation, is a mountainous area where some 169,000 Muslims live side by side with 65,000 Christians.
It is the center of the planned six-month exercise between U.S. forces and Philippine soldiers where the Abu Sayyaf extremists are currently holed up.
The military estimates the Abu Sayyaf has about 80 hard-core fighters with hundreds of civilian supporters.
It is one of the groups that the United States has linked to the al-Qaeda network of Bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
A total of 660 US soldiers will be taking part in the exercise, but most of them will stay in Zamboanga City and Cebu City as logistics and support staff.
Some American soldiers will be joining patrols in Basilan toward the end of the training program, but only as observers.
They are only allowed to defend themselves if attacked.
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