NO COMBAT FOR U.S. FORCES VS. JOLO REBELS -- AFP

An alert US soldier guarding a Philippine military base in the southern port city of Zamboanga looks on a school boy, who passes near his patrol jeep.Zamboanga City, Feb. 10, 2003 -- The Philippine military on Saturday said it would not allow US forces to fight alongside with Filipino troops against the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group in the southern island of Jolo.

"They will not be allowed to fight or join combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo. The US soldiers are here to train the Filipino troops," southern Philippines military spokesman Lt. Col. Daniel Lucero said.

The reaction came after news reports quoated President George Bush as saying that the United States is considering sending two dozen special forces soldiers to the largely Muslim island of Jolo, about 950 km south of Manila, to help the Philippine military fight the Abu Sayyaf.

The reports also said that President Gloria Arroyo has approved the plan that calls for the deployment of four teams of US Green Berets soldiers. A report from the Feb.04 issue of the politically influential broadsheet Congress Daily Newspaper in Washington said "Bush set to approve terror combat mission in Philippines."

The United States has tagged the Abu Sayyaf as a foreign terrorist organization last year after rebels killed two American hostages in the southern Philippines -- one of them beheaded in June 2001.

Sources close to President Arroyo have denied the reports and insisted the US military forces would only train soldiers.

"The report is wrong and President Arroyo would not allow US troops to fight the Abu Sayyaf. The Abu Sayyaf is a domestic problem and the Philippine Constitution prohibits foreign forces from joining local combat operation," a military adviser of President Arroyo said.

US military spokesperson Capt. Steve Wollman also denied the report, stressing that American soldiers will only train Philippine troops and would not join combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf.

"We are here to train and assist the Armed Forces of the Philippines," Wollman told reporters in Zamboanga City.

Philippine Defense Sec. Angelo Reyes and Southern Philippines military chief Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya both had earlier said they would not allow US troops to participate in offensive operation against the Abu Sayyaf.

At least 70 US special forces, part of a group of 300 soldiers, are expected to arrive in Zamboanga City later this month to train four Philippine Army light reaction companies, a unit specialized in anti-terrorism, and 14 light infantry battalions, Wollman said.

The commander of the US Special Operations Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster also said the US forces would only train Filipino troops and would stay away from Basilan and Jolo islands, where Philippine soldiers are battling the Abu Sayyaf.

US and Philippine troops last year ended a six-month joint counterterrorism exercises in Basilan, a known Abu Sayyaf stonghold, about 15 miles south of Zamboanga City. During the training, Abu Sayyaf rebels strafed with automatic weapons a US Pave Hawk chopper and attacked American soldiers in Basilan, although no was killed or injured.

But a US soldier was killed when the rebels detonated a bomb planted on a motorcycle outside a restaurant last October. Two Filipinos were also killed in the attack, claimed by the Abu Sayyaf. The group has threatened to mount more attacks against US targets in retaliation for the continued US support to Israel against Palestine. (Al Jacinto, PHNO Mindanao Bureau)


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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