ZAMBOANGA CITY, January 13, 2003 (STAR) Abu Sayyaf Islamist guerrillas are still a threat to US troops in Mindanao, despite government claims of successes against them, officials said yesterday.

"The United States still considers the Abu Sayyaf a threat and we have close coordination with the Philippine military," said Col. Douglas Lengenfelder, commander of the US forces here.

"We have taken steps to protect our soldiers," he said.

Lengenfelder said both armed forces were cooperating in "intelligence and physical security in the field."

At least 200 US soldiers are to begin arriving in batches in this port city this week to train an elite unit specialized in going after terror groups, officials said.

In October, a US soldier was among three people killed in an Abu Sayyaf bomb attack in Malagutay district here, which also left 23 people wounded.

The Abu Sayyaf is a small group of Islamic militants notorious for their kidnapping and criminal activities targeting foreign and local tourists, businessmen and missionaries in the south.

Last year about 1,000 members of the US Special Forces were deployed to Mindanao for six months of joint counter-terrorism operations. This led to the death of Abu Sabaya, the most notorious of Abu Sayyaf leaders, and the rescue of US hostage Gracia Burnham.

Most of the Americans pulled out in July, but about 300 support troops remained in a military command center here.

The new batch of US troops will be mostly training in a jungle camp in the outskirts of the city and stay away from the nearby rebel strongholds of Basilan and Sulu islands.

The US forces are to train at least four Philippine Army battalions and 16 light reaction companies for counter-terrorism operations. Philippine Air Force pilots will also be trained in night flying.

The training is part of a $25-million long-term US security assistance program for the Philippines, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said.

"The training will have five modules and this training will improve the soldiers’ capability in anti-terrorism warfare," he said. "The training would last the whole of this year."

Meanwhile, an Army Scout Ranger was killed and eight others wounded when government troops clashed with 30 Abu Sayyaf bandits in Sulu yesterday morning.

The casualty was not immediately identified.

Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya, Armed Forces Southern Command chief, said Army Scout Rangers and troops from the US-trained Light Reaction Company clashed with the bandits at around 9 a.m. in Barangay Bulot in Indianan town.

"Our troops are certain they have inflicted undetermined casualty," he said. "The offensive operation continued as the bandits were firing in their retreat."

Abaya said government troops have detected that Abu Sayyaf leaders from Basilan were trying to link with other Abu Sayyaf gunmen in Sulu.

The troops relied on their individual weapons and did not have any air support, Abaya added.

The US government has placed a $1-million bounty on the head of each of the four Abu Sayyaf leaders involved in the kidnapping and murder of Americans Guillermo Sobero and Martin Burnham.

Among them is Hamsiraji Sali, alias Jose Ramirez, who has reportedly deployed his men to sow terror when the next US-Philippine military exercises are held in Mindanao. — With Roel Pareño

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