ZAMBOANGA CITY, January 11, 2003 (STAR)  At least 200 US soldiers will arrive in Mindanao next week to train an elite unit specialized in hunting down terror groups, military officials said yesterday.

Between 200 and 300 American soldiers will arrive in this southern port to be deployed in two military camps here. They will train and equip local soldiers who will make up a light reaction company and four light infantry battalions, Armed Forces Southern Command (Southcom) chief Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya said.

Military sources said the Americans were expected to arrive on Jan. 17. The training will take place at the Zamboanga Freeport Zone in Barangay San Ramon and Camp Gen. Arturo Enrile in Barangay Malagutay.

Abaya said the US troops would stay away from the nearby islands of Basilan and Sulu, where Filipino soldiers are hunting down the Abu Sayyaf, which is believed linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Abaya gave assurance that the American trainers would be secured against terrorist threats. A bomb blast in Zamboanga City on Oct. 2, 2002 killed an American soldier and two Filipinos and wounded 23 other people, including another US soldier.

"We have security measures to protect the US soldiers and trainers against threats of attacks by terrorists," Abaya said.

He said the areas where the Americans would be deployed would be under "very, very tight security," adding that Filipinos who interact with the US troops would be tightly screened.

In the past, US-trained light reaction companies have been deployed against the Abu Sayyaf, which has kidnapped Christians and foreigners for ransom.

Last year, American troops assisted and advised local soldiers in hunting down the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan.

The Abu Sayyaf is believed to have carried out the October bombing.

Meanwhile, the military said there is still no credible threat from the Abu Sayyaf against the visiting US troops.

A local television station here reported that the Abu Sayyaf leader Hamsiraj Sali, alias Jose Ramirez, said he has dispatched his urban hit squad to launch atrocities against the visiting American soldiers.

Sali is one of the four top Abu Sayyaf leaders wanted by the US government. The US government is offering a $1 million bounty for Sali, Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khaddafi Janjalani, Jainal Sali, alias Abu Solaiman, and Isnilon Hapilon.

Another Abu Sayyaf leader with a bounty on his head was Aldam Tilao, alias Abu Sabaya, who was reported killed by government troops in a sea encounter with Philippine troops on June 21, 2002.

The threat made by Hamsiraj Sali, Abaya said, "could be propaganda," though the general also said "the threats against the US soldiers and trainers remain there."

Two members of the Abu Sayyaf were captured over the past two weeks, including Merang Abante, one of the Abu Sayyaf leaders with a $1 million bounty on his head.

Philippine-US defense relations have strengthened after President Arroyo became one of the first leaders to declare support for the US-led campaign against terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks blamed on al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden. — AFP, Roel Pareño

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