Zamboanga City, Feb. 19, 2003 -- Defense Sec. Angelo Reyes confirmed today that counterterrorism exercises between the Philippines and the United States will start this week in Jolo, where security forces are pursuing the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group.

Reyes said USforces from Japan are arriving to train Filipino troops. "The training will start anytime now, maybe in a few days," he said.

He said the jointmilitary exercises in the largely Muslim island of Jolo, about 950 kms from Manila, would enhance bilateral cooperation. "The Muslims in Jolo will benefit from this anti-terrorism training and all these are in accordance with the Philippine Constitution," Reyes said.

"Our objective here is to enhance the capability of our soldiers through training in fighting the terrorists and at the same time the operation against them will continue," he said.

Meanwhile, fierce fighting between security and rebel forces also erupted Wednesday in Jolo's Patikul town, but there were no immediate reports of casualties on both sides, the military said.

Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya said:"Troops stormed an Abu Sayyaf encampment and clashed with terrorists. Offensive operation is goingon in Jolo."

Government forces onTuesday also clashedwith the rebels in Talipao town, killing for gunmen, Abaya said. He saidAbu Sayyaf leader Mujib Susukan was believed wounded in the clash. "Susukan was saidto be critically wounded in the militaryattack. Four other rebels were killed," he said.

The Abu Sayyaf is still holding three Indonesian seamen and four Filipino Christian preachers kidnapped last year in Jolo. "We really need to address the problem there in Jolo. We have to let the terrorists know that the government and President Arroyo is capable and determined to bring peace in the island," Reyes said.

President Arroyohas allowed US forces to train Filipino troops in the strife-torn island, a known stronghold of Abu Sayyaf. The training is part of the US security assistance programto the Philippines and would start soon, said Defense department spokesman Col. Danilo Servando.

About 300 US special forces soldiers are also set to begin counterterrorism training exercise with hundreds ofPhilippine troopslater this month in Zamboanga City. "We are still awaiting details of the joint RP-US training, similar to last year's Balikatan 02-1 training exercises in Basilan island," Servando said.

The jointtraining last year,dubbed as"Operation Freedom Eagle-Philippines," lasted six months and involved more than 3,000 American and Filipino soldiers inthe largely Muslim island of Basilan, also a known lair of the Abu Sayyaf rebels.

Reyes said politicians and residents in Jolo have welcomed the news of the RP-US training. "This will be similar towhat we did inBasilan last year. There will also be development or humanitarian projects for Jolo and this will benefit our brother Muslims andwe are happy to hearnews of their supportof the training," he said.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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