Arroyo assuages Philippine leaders on role of U.S. troops in fight against Abu Sayyaf

Wednesday, January 23rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo won key support Wednesday for joint military exercises aimed at wiping out a Muslim extremist group after offering assurances that no American troops will engage in combat.

After a meeting of the powerful National Security Council, Vice President Teofisto Guingona, who was reportedly close to resigning as foreign secretary over the exercises, told reporters he would stay on.

``The president is happy that there is a consensus in the meeting,'' said presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao.

The security council includes Arroyo, Guingona, defense and security officials, majority and minority leaders in Congress and former presidents.

About 660 U.S. soldiers, including 160 from the Special Forces, would be involved in the exercise focused on the Abu Sayyaf group, which has been linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network. The group is holding an American missionary couple and a Filipino nurse hostage on Basilan island.

The planned exercises have generated protests from leftist groups and some politicians have questioned their legality, since the constitution prohibits foreign troops from fighting on Philippine soil. Opposition grew after officials revealed the exercise would be held in a combat zone.

Meanwhile, two rebels and a soldier were killed Wednesday when about 140 soldiers clashed with suspected Abu Sayyaf guerrillas on a mountain on Basilan island, military officials said.

It was the first deadly fighting since U.S. troops started building up their presence on the island. Capt. Noel Detoyato, spokesman for the military's Southern Command, said the army scout rangers were scouring the jungle on Mount Matangal when they encountered 40 guerrillas.

Arroyo has defused some opposition to the joint military exercises by promising that U.S. troops would not join the fight.

``We would like to state categorically that the president's policy decision is that the Americans are not going to be engaged in combat, period,'' said National Security Adviser Roilo Golez.

Guingona, who holds two posts, said he decided not to resign as foreign secretary after Justice Secretary Hernando Perez said Arroyo had ``valid authority'' to proceed with the exercise.

Golez said the security council was informed the exercise had ``overwhelming public support'' and is permitted by the bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement, which governs U.S. military forces in the country.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told Japan's NHK television Sunday that the United States is sending ``American trainers to work alongside the Philippine army and to see if we can help them do a better job of dealing with their problem.''

``Their problem _ terrorism inside the Philippines _ threatens Philippine citizens, but also American citizens or other citizens who might be tourists ... and we are missing two citizens at the moment, and we want to get our citizens back,'' Powell said.

Security officials initially said the exercise could run up to a year. However, Golez said it would last only ``six months, period.''

Golez said about 160 U.S. troops would be deployed on Basilan to help train Philippine soldiers now involved in trying to rescue American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., and Filipino nurse Deborah Yap.

``They will be to the rear of the Filipino troops, so that would really avoid the possibility of them being cornered or being put in a situation where they have to defend themselves,'' Golez said.

An additional 250 U.S. troops will be stationed in Zamboanga city, home to the military's Southern Command, and 250 will provide support and aircraft maintenance in central Cebu City, Golez said.