Malacanang Palace, Manila, Feb. 17, 2003 - President Gloria Arroyo has approved the sending of US military trainers to the island of Jolo as part of the campaign against terrorism in Mindanao.

"Upon the recommendation of the secretaries of Foreign Affairs and National Defense, the president today approved the holding of Balikatan 03-1 in Sulu," President Gloria Arroyo's spokesman Ignacio Bunye said today in a statement.

Balikatan is the codename of the war games between the two countries largely aimed at destroying the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group linked to the al-Qaeda terror network of Osama bin laden.

"The specific number of American soldiers and support troops, as well as the duration of the exercise, have not yet been determined by the Philippine government in consultation with the United States," Bunye added.

Bunye said that as in the Basilan operation, "the (Sulu) exercise will form part of the country's overall and ongoing defense and security cooperation activities with the United States, which continue to focus on increasing our ability to protect ourselves against terrorist threats."

He said on government radio earlier that Manila would take steps to ensure the safety of the exercise participants as well as civilians.

Jolo is the stronghold of several hundred Abu Sayyaf gunmen who have kidnapped dozens of US and other foreign hostages over the past two years.

The US government considers the Abu Sayyaf a "foreign terrorist organization" and has put up a five million US dollar bounty on the heads of five of its top leaders for the kidnapping and murder of American citizens Guillermo Sobero and Martin Burnham in the latest kidnap crisis in May 2001-June 2002.

Several hundred US Special Forces troops trained and later joined Filipino anti-terror troops last year in combat patrols on the southern island of Basilan -- another Abu Sayyaf stronghold.

A separate batch of US military trainers is expected to start training Filipino "light reaction companies" in the southern city of Zamboanga near Jolo and Basilan this week.

Bunye said US Major General Joseph Weber would arrive "within the next few days" to discuss details of the Jolo operation.

Washington has been boosting military aid to Manila since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, worried that al-Qaeda Islamic militants flushed out by the US-led campaign in Afghanistan could have set up bases in Southeast Asia.

The suspicion was bolstered by the bombing of the Bali resort in Indonesia last year that killed nearly 200 people, many of them western tourists.

Both the US and Philippine governments say the Abu Sayyaf received funding from al-Qaeda in the early 1990s.

A bomb attack blamed on the Abu Sayyaf killed three people including a US soldier in Zamboanga in October.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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