Five guerrillas killed in Philippines gun battle

Friday, February 1st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) _ At least five Muslim extremist guerrillas were killed early Friday in a battle with Philippine troops on Basilan island, where two Americans and a Filipino nurse are held hostage, a Philippine military commander said.

The firefight came a day after the Philippines and the United States opened a training exercise aimed at wiping out the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, who have been linked to the al-Qaida terror network.

In Manila, meanwhile, two lawyers asked the Supreme Court on Friday to stop the exercise, arguing that a bilateral agreement contains no provision allowing U.S. troops to be deployed ``in a war zone area'' like Basilan.

Philippine soldiers engaged about 20 guerrillas in a 15-minute gunfight around Maluso town on Basilan island near Zamboanga, Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu said.

``I would say that this group is the blocking force of the main Abu Sayyaf group that is holding the hostages,'' Cimatu said. ``If it is ... probably we will have some positive developments in the near future.''

Troops recovered the body of one guerrilla, five assault rifles, personal belongings and ammunition in the village of Las Poler. The remaining guerrillas were being pursued by the marines, who suffered no injuries, Cimatu said.

``We have destroyed their perimeter defense ... (while) degrading their capability in terms of strength and firepower,'' he said.

The guerrillas have eluded about 7,000 soldiers deployed to Basilan since beginning a kidnapping spree in May. The guerrillas still hold Christian missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., and nurse Deborah Yap of Basilan.

On Thursday, U.S. troops began a six-month training exercise for Filipino soldiers that U.S. charge d'affaires Robert Fitts said will ``help eliminate the terrorist parasites'' threatening both countries.

The exercise will involve 660 U.S. soldiers, including 160 special forces troops deployed among Philippine marine and army battalions on Basilan.

Some special forces may accompany Filipino soldiers into combat zones. They are authorized to shoot in self-defense.

But opposition politicians say the mission violates a Philippine constitutional clause restricting foreign combat troops on sovereign soil.

In their petition to the Supreme Court, lawyers Arthur Lim, former national president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, and Paulino Ersando said the bilateral agreement contains no provision allowing U.S. troops to train, advise or chaperone Filipino troops ``in a war zone area like the one in Basilan.''

The agreement also does not allow American soldiers to fire back, the petition said.

``To unleash American GIs to subdue (the Abu Sayyaf), even under the cover of expanding the U.S.-led war against global terror, is not only an unmitigated insult against the Filipino soldier, but a negation of our self-respect as a people and a mockery of the Philippine Constitution,'' it added.

More than 100 U.S. soldiers already are in the southern port city of Zamboanga. Others will arrive in coming weeks.

Filipino officers said the U.S. soldiers mainly will train the local troops to fly helicopters at night and to use other tactics involving sophisticated equipment.

Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said in neighboring Malaysia on Thursday that the Philippine government told him the objective was to destroy the Abu Sayyaf.

``They are very much looking to identify, surround and capture the group,'' the Malaysian national news agency Bernama quoted Blair as saying. ``I think we are working together to capture these international criminals and not simply dump our problem on our neighbor.''