US identifies extremists in Philippines as next target

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In the first avowed military extension of America's "war against terrorism" beyond Afghanistan, US and Philippines forces began a joint military operation to root out an extremist Islamic group which Washington claims has links with Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida organisation.

Some 160 US special force troops will join regular Filipino units in "training patrols" in the mountainous southern Philippines island of Basilan, in the initial phase of a scheduled six months of exercises which will involve 600 American and 3,800 Filipino soldiers.

Their target is the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group whose stronghold is Basilan and which has long been conducting an insurgency against the Manila government. The group, which US officials say has provided logistical help to al-Qa'ida, has taken numerous hostages, several of whom have been killed.

In a brief ceremony to mark the start of the operation, at the mainland city of Zamboanga, the acting US ambassador to the Philippines, Robert Fitts, said the US would help the country's armed forces "hone their skills to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf scourge".

But not all Filipinos see things that way. In the capital, police clashed with protesters brandishing placards saying, "Yankee Go Home."

At Zamboanga, demonstrators chanting "Gloria US Puppet" (a reference to the Philippines President Gloria Arroyo) and "We need food and houses, not bombs."

Opponents of Ms Arroyo say that the presence of the US soldiers violates the country's constitution which forbids foreign soldiers from operating in the Philippines. But the Philippine government insists that the Americans are there exclusively to proved training and equipment, and will not take part in the fighting.

As the Abu Sayyaf operation began, news came of the murder of a US citizen.

The man was shot dead in an ambush on Mount Pinatubo, the volcano some 60 miles northwest of Manila, by unidentified gunmen. They are believed to belong to a communist guerrilla movement and may also have been protesting the US military involvement.

Weeks after the September 11 attacks, Abu Sayyaf was already being linked with al- Qa'ida by US officials. Although detailed evidence has not been forthcoming, the Philippines – along with Somalia – has long been seen as the most likely place for phase two of the anti-terror campaign, and was directly mentioned by President Bush in his State of the Union address this week.

But the fighting will not be easy – indeed for veterans, the rugged jungle terrain of Basilan brings back memories of the harsh conditions of the Vietnam war, 30 years ago.

Meanwhile Mr Bush's "axis of evil" remarks continue to reverberate. On a visit to Washington yesterday, King Abdullah of Jordan warned that any attack against Iraq would be "extremely destabilising" for the Middle East.

From Iran, another member of the axis, came a tirade from the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran, he declared, "is proud to be at the receiving end of the anger of the most hated Satanic power of the world."