Manila, Feb. 21, 2003 -- Top Philippine government officials today warned that American troops joining Filipino forces in combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf bandit group would go against the provisions of the Constitution.

"I think that the US is overstepping its bounds . . . because the Armed Forces is bound by its Constitution and by the treaties that govern the relationship between the Philippines and the United States," Vice President Teofisto Guingona said.

Senator Aquilino Pimentel said the Macapagal-Arroyo administration would be committing treason if it "subverts the Constitution" by allowing foreign troops in Philippine combat zones.

A Pentagon official earlier said this year's Balikatan 03-01 exercises "is different", adding, "this is an actual combined operation, and its is US forces accompanying and actively participating in Philippines-led offensive operations."

The US is expected to send at least 3,000 soldiers to the country this year.

Guingona said allowing the Amercian soldiers' direct involvement in combat operations would contravene with Article 18, Section 25 of the Constitution that prohibits foreign troops participation in Armed Forces operations.

"After the expiration in 1991 of the Agreement between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America concerning Military Bases, foreign military bases, troops or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the contracting State," the provision states.

Bayan Muna partylist Congressman Satur Ocampo said that even if the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) allowed bilateral military exercises between US and Philippine troops, "it would be stretching it too far" if the government insisted on allowing the Americans to fight side-by-side with local troops.

This was the first time the US declared intentions to take an active role in offensives against the Muslim kidnap group, although its forces have regularly visited the country for a series of "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) joint military war exercises.

Ocampo warned that military officials might invoke the VFA as basis for the US troops' participation, since it did not explicitly ban such activities.

"That's why we have to carefully scrutinize the Terms of Reference that would be drafted for Balikatan 03-01, because they might invoke it in there," he told INQ7.net.

Pimentel said he would file a resolution to question Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes over the reports.

Pimentel said that despite Malacaņang's denial on US involvement in combat operations, Pentagon spokespersons have been widely quoted in major US dailies Friday as saying about 3,000 American troops are set to arrive in the country to launch massive offensives against the Abu Sayyaf.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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