US troops to join anti-terror exercises in Philippines

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More than 600 US soldiers will join Filipino troops in a months­long anti­terrorism exercise that would allow American soldiers into combat zones to observe the Philippines' war against Muslim extremists.

The six­month military exercise will start this month and could last to the end of the year in the southern port city of Zamboanga and nearby Basilan island, where thousands of Filipino soldiers are waging an offensive against Abu Sayyaf guerrillas holding an American couple and a Filipino nurse hostage, officials said.

Defence Secretary Angelo Reyes said about 650 US military personnel, including 150 members of special forces units, will join 1,200 Philippine soldiers in the exercise called "Balikatan" or "shouldering the load together."

Reyes said the objective of the exercise, which is allowed under a mutual defence treaty and military agreements between the two longtime allies, is to strengthen the nations' "combined capability to fight terrorism."

US participation signifies an increasing American involvement in the war against the Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to Osama bin Laden's al­Qaida terror network. The United States has been supporting the poorly equipped Philippine military with weapons and training in fighting the Abu Sayyaf, which has become notorious for taking foreign hostages.

The hostages still in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf – Kansas missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham and Filipina nurse Deborah Yap – are among scores taken in a kidnapping spree that began in May. Several hostages, including California resident Guillermo Sobero, were killed in captivity. Others either escaped or were freed for ransom

The soldiers from both countries will exchange knowledge on jungle warfare, survival techniques and intelligence operations, Philippine military officials said.

At certain points, small teams of US military observers would be allowed to enter combat areas in Basilan to observe and assess at close­range as Filipino troops battle the Abu Sayyaf, Reyes said.

Those Americans will be allowed to carry arms for self­defence but are prohibited from joining combat operations, Reyes said. Replying to a reporter's question, he said the exercise would not be used as a cover for covert operations involving US special forces.

"We don't want American forces directly engaged in combat," Reyes told a news conference.

Philippine law prohibits foreign troops from joining combat operations in the country, and several left­wing groups have protested against American involvement in the war against the Abu Sayyaf.