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U.S. may extend stay in the Philippines

By Rufi Vigilar in Manila

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (CNN) -- U.S. Pacific Command chief Admiral Dennis Blair has arrived in southern Zamboanga City to assess the progress of war games between U.S. and Philippine troops and discuss a possible extension of U.S. military presence in the country.

Blair arrived with U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Francis Ricciardone, before noon Monday and will be holding a closed-door meeting with Philippine Armed Forces chief General Diomedio Villanueva, other military officials, and Zamboanga City mayor Maria Clara Lobregat.

The war games, dubbed Balikatan (Shoulder to Shoulder) 02-1, are aimed at eliminating the Abu Sayyaf -- a Muslim guerrilla group linked to the al Qaeda terrorist network.

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    Blair's visit comes ahead of the deployment of U.S. military engineers to augment 660 troops taking part in counter-terrorist training exercises, with Abu Sayyaf guerrillas as live targets.

    The Abu Sayyaf have been holding captive an American couple and a Filipino nurse for more than 10 months.

    The group has kidnapped scores of Western and Asian hostages in the past two years, beheading more than a dozen, including an American tourist captured last year.

    Basilan congressman Abdulgani Salapuddin downplayed the expected arrival of the military engineers, who he said will be involved in projects like road-building to help quell terrorism in the impoverished south where the Filipino Muslim majority lives.

    "The socio-economic aspect of the war games should be treated separately," Salapuddin said, adding that he himself had suggested the building of provincial roads to Col. David Maxwell, the U.S. troops' commander in Basilan.

    Any civic projects undertaken by U.S. troops are expected to be completed before the war games end in June.

    More war games

    Critics of the joint war games are suggesting, however, the engineers' arrival foreshadows an extended presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines.

    "There is more than meets the eye in their arrival," congresswoman Loretta Ann Rosales told CNN Monday.

    "The civic projects are part of an effort by the U.S. to re-establish the hold they lost in the Philippines in 1991," she said.

    The Philippines Senate voted that year to dismantle U.S. military bases.

    Rosales said the U.S. was intent on "expanding its defense perimeter in the region," amid an ongoing crackdown on al Qaeda supporters in Southeast Asia.

    The Philippine Supreme Court ruled last week against separate petitions to halt Balikatan 02-1, but anti-U.S. sentiment is likely to surface again when a new series of war games begins later this month.

    According to the Visiting Forces Commission, a U.S. warship and fighter jets are to be deployed in the Philippines in the next war games, dubbed Balikatan 02-2.

    Human rights

    The mounting pressure on the military to rescue the remaining Abu Sayyaf hostages had raised fears of human rights violations against civilians, Rosales said.

    Despite the use of U.S. spy planes and the unprecedented number of troops scouring Basilan, little gains have been made in rescuing American couple Martin and Gracia Burnham and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap.

    Talk of ransoms being negotiated for the speedy release of the hostages has been rife, even as the Philippine government reiterated a joint no-ransom policy with the U.S. government.

    Rosales said soldiers could become bolder in their treatment of suspects.

    Rosales added that a military camp set up for U.S. soldiers in Zamboanga City had encroached on the ancestral domain of tribal folk.

    Mayor Lobregat, however, favors U.S. military presence beyond June, saying it has contributed to the city's peace and order and commerce.

    Abu Sayyaf guerrillas and members of other Muslim separatist groups have in the past sought refuge in Zamboanga City.




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