Zamboanga City, Feb. 5, 2003- Philippine military officials on Wednesday said the arrival here of some 300 American special forces trainors was delayed, as the US continue to build up its forces in Kuwait against a possible strike on Iraq.

Security officials also warned of possible retaliation by Muslims in the Philippines against US targets if war breaks out in Iraq.

Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya said the delay of the training was due to administrative reason on the part of the US military. "There is a delay, but the training would still go on later this month," Abaya told reporters at a news briefing in Zamboanga City.

The US special forces, mostly coming from Okinawa, Japan, is supposed to arrive Feb. 18 to train more than a thousand Filipino soldiers in counterterrorism. Abaya said the trainors would probably arrive later in February.

"They would probably be here between February 20 or 22, or later this month, but the training would definitely push through and the looming war in Iraq would not affect us," he said.

A C17 cargo plane would ferry US soldiers and their equipment from Japan to Zamboanga City, a senior Philippine Army official said.

A 12-man advance team of US trainors, from the First Special Forces headquarters in Okinawa, Japan is already in Zamboanga City and have inspected several training sites in the village of San Ramon and inside a Philippine Army base in Malagutay village, said Capt. Steve Wollman, a US military spokesperson.

Philippine and US military officials did not say if the delay in the training has something to do with the massive build-up of US forces in Kuwait, as President Bush repeatedly accused Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of concealing weapons of mass destruction.

President Gloria Arroyo has echoed Bush's calls on Iraq to disarm and she has repeatedly supported this stance. "It should be clear to all that the responsibility to avoid conflict rests with the Iraqi leadership," she said in a nationwide radio address Tuesday after meeting with US Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, who visited Manila.

Abaya also warned that Muslims in the Philippines sympathetic to Iraq could retaliate against US targets in the country. "There could be people sympathetic to Iraq and they could retaliate on US targets. It could manifest in forms of violence," he said.

Last year, the Philippines and the United States ended a six-month anti-terror training in Basilan island and Zamboanga City, dubbed Operation Freedom Eagle-Philippines, that involved more than 3,000 troops.

Abaya said the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) remain the biggest threat in the southern Philippines. The US last year included the MILF in its list of foreign terrorist organization alongside with the Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front (CPP-NDF) and its armed wing the New People's Army (NPA), tagged as behind the assassination in Manila of Col. James Rowe, of the Joint US Military Assistance Group (Jusmag) in the 1990s.

It also included in the blacklist the Pentagon kidnap gang, tagged by the Philippine authorities as behind the series of kidnappings of foreigners, mostly missionaries in the south. (Al Jacinto, PHNO Mindanao Bureau)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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