U.S. general says his troops ready to take casualties in helping Philippines fight Muslim extremists

Wednesday, February 6th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) _ U.S. troops are ready to take casualties to help the Philippines fight Muslim extremist guerrillas holding an American couple, the head of the American forces said Wednesday.

As part of a training exercise, 160 U.S. Special Forces of a 660-strong American contingent would be allowed to enter war zones to observe Filipino soldiers battling Abu Sayaff guerrillas on southern Basilan island.

American troops are forbidden from engaging in combat but will be armed for self-defense.

``Our soldiers will be accompanying your commanders as they conduct business in harm's way. There is no question that American soldiers will be there where they could become injured or killed if the Philippine element is attacked,'' said Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster. ``But the mission needs to be accomplished in support of our allies.''

Wurster said about 50 Filipino soldiers have been killed trying to rescue Wichita, Kan., missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham and other hostages and that steps would be taken to minimize risks to troops from both countries.

More than 260 American soldiers have arrived in the southern port city of Zamboanga for the six-month maneuvers called Balikatan, or ``shoulder to shoulder.'' Most have been restricted to the tightly secured headquarters of the Philippine military's Southern Command.

``There are many people right here who would like to do us harm, and we cannot compromise our mission that our president has committed to yours for the sake of social things right now,'' Wurster told a news briefing after paying a call on Zamboanga Mayor Maria Clara Lobregat under heavy guard.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's decision to allow American soldiers in combat areas has sparked concerns of possible violations of Philippine Constitutional limits on the presence and activities of foreign troops. Critics have also said conflict in the southern Philippines, a hotbed of Muslim separatism, could escalate if U.S. troops were attacked.

The Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday asked Arroyo's administration to answer a petition by two lawyers who sought to stop the exercises, arguing that a bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement does not allow American troops to train and fire guns in a combat area.

Assurances by U.S. and Philippine officials that the exercise would conform with Philippine law have not stopped frequent protests at the U.S. Embassy and the presidential palace in Manila and in some Muslim areas in the south. But the protests have been small and mostly limited to left-wing groups long critical of Washington.

About a dozen Muslim protesters submitted a resolution to Basilan officials on Wednesday, opposing the war drills over concerns they could escalate violence and displace villagers already suffering from law and order problems.

Much of the concern has been stirred by media reports and statements from some U.S. officials that suggested the Philippines would be the second front in the U.S.-led war against terrorism after Afghanistan. Both governments have denied that.

Wurster said it was important for the Philippines' future to immediately end the threat posed by the Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked in the past to the al-Qaida terror network.

``The world will beat a path to your doorstep for the opportunity to visit here when the conditions are right. Hopefully, we'll be able to achieve that together,'' Wurster said.