Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


U.S. troops start moving to remote Philippine Island

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (REUTERS) — U.S. troops began deploying Friday on a remote Philippine island used by Muslim guerrillas linked to Osama bin Laden. A senior diplomat said they were ready for action, although on a training mission.

This is the biggest expansion of the U.S. war on terrorism after Afghanistan. Officials from both countries have said the training should last about six months.

U.S. Charge d’Affaires Robert Fitts told reporters in Manila the troops, on a “robust training exercise” for Filipino soldiers to be held on the southern island of Basilan, had no plans to engage in combat themselves.

But ambushes, close-quarter combat and savage fighting involving Abu Sayyaf guerrillas and Philippine troops are an almost daily feature of life on Basilan, a rugged and forested island 900 km (560 miles) south of Manila.

Fitts acknowledged the U.S. troops could get involved. “There is the possibility of hostile contact, but I would personally rate that as a possibility and not a probability.”

He said the U.S. troops were willing to take casualties.

“I don’t say that lightly, I don’t mean we are callous about it, [but] we understand the implications of coming in,” he said. “We are not going to just turn around and abandon this exercise if there is an unfortunate incident.”

Officials in Zamboanga, the headquarters of the Philippine southern military command and the big city nearest Basilan, said about 20 U.S. soldiers went by helicopter to the island Friday to set up base at a military camp there.

Some 150 U.S. special forces will move to Basilan over the next few days. Some 500 other troops, mostly involved in supplies and logistics, will be stationed in Zamboanga and in the central city of Cebu.

Some 6,000 Philippine troops are on Basilan, an island about three times the size of Singapore and dotted by hills rising steeply up from sea level to 1,000 meters (3,300 feet). Estimates of Abu Sayyaf strength on the Muslim-dominated island of about 300,000 people vary from about 100 to several hundred.

U.S. deployment criticized

The U.S. deployment has drawn sharp criticism from many in the Philippines, who have attacked President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for what they call asking the United States for help in solving a domestic problem.

Critics also say the training exercise is only a cover for American troops getting involved in combat, in defiance of the Constitution.

But the opposition to the deployment has not translated into any support in the Catholic-dominated nation for the Abu Sayyaf, which claims to be fighting for an Islamic state but appears to restrict its activities to kidnap for ransom.

Even in the south, where most of the country’s five million Muslims live, support for the Abu Sayyaf appears only marginal.

Other Muslim groups, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a separatist outfit now in peace talks with the government, have warned, however, that they will not tolerate U.S. troops encroaching into their territory.

Fitts said the United States did not consider the MILF a terrorist group. Washington has linked the Abu Sayyaf to the al Qaeda network of bin Laden, whom it blames for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Fitts said he had no problem with almost daily protest demonstrations in front of the U.S. Embassy in Manila by activists opposing the military exercises.

“We are an open and democratic society. We are used to people demonstrating,” he said. “That’s the way open societies work.”

He also said there was no fresh word on the fate of an American missionary couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham, whom the Abu Sayyaf have held hostage on Basilan for more than eight months. But he said pressure was beginning to tell on the guerrillas.

“Clearly, the group that is with them is much smaller than [it] has been in the past. They have been worn down by the pursuit of the armed forces of the Philippines,” Fitts said.

“I suspect that with the exercises coming, that will increase the desire of their leadership to unburden themselves of these hostages and go into hiding, but I can’t say they are going to do that.”

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