Manila, Feb. 21, 2003 -- New terms of reference (TOR) would have to be drafted for the upcoming Balikatan 03-1 war exercises in Sulu, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said yesterday after unnamed US officials pushed the suggestion that US troops be allowed to battle Abu Sayyaf terrorists now holed up on the island.

Bunye said the new TOR would reiterate the same provisions under last year's Balikatan 02-1 disallowing American troops from actively participating in combat operations.

President Arroyo herself told Palace reporters that the same TOR would be applied to this year's Balikatan exercises to be held in Sulu.

Undersecretary Amado Valdez, executive director of the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFACom), said the choice of Sulu as the site of Balikatan 03-1, which is tentatively set to start April 28, was in answer to the clamor of Sulu mayors and was not meant to bait the Abu Sayyaf into attacking the US soldiers.

"The Americans would not be used in the operations against the Abu Sayyaf but if they are fired upon, they could fire back in self-defense," Valdez said.

Valdez clarified that Balikatan 03-1 could also be held in Bicol, Cagayan or Ilocos and that both countries are now holding talks to determine if it could be held in any of these places.

"Our primary consideration are remote places where there is a need to strengthen the presence of government. The holding of Balikatan there could reinforce the residents' faith in government," he said.

Valdez pointed out that Basilan, host of last year's Balikatan, got two hospitals and a circumferential road aside from livelihood opportunities for its residents.

Bunye and Valdez the remarks to clarify reported plans by the US to deploy US Army special forces in combat operations in Sulu to crush the Abu Sayyaf.

Unnamed US officials were reported to have said they have new information showing a stronger link between the rebels and other international terrorist groups.

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said that discussions on the final details will start "in a few days" with the arrival in the country of a US delegation led by Maj. Gen. Joseph Weber, commander of the Third Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Okinawa, Japan.

Reyes is also scheduled to leave for Honolulu and Washington next week to meet with US military and defense officials to fine-tune the details of the supposed deployment.

Reyes said that among the issues to be threshed out are the duration of the war games, the number of troops to be involved and their specific activities.

He said Balikatan 03-1 will involve the training of light reaction companies, light infantry, helicopter crews for night flying missions and intelligence gathering. Anti-terrorism 101 As this developed, the second batch of US Special Forces participating in the security assistance training in Zamboanga City arrived yesterday from Okinawa on board a C-17 Globemaster cargo plane.

The 12 Green Berets are part of a 70-member contingent that will train Philippine security forces in counter-terrorism techniques.

The US trainers will remain in the country for up to 10 months, said Maj. John Amberg, spokesman for the American forces.

"This security assistance training is part of a five-module counter-terrorism training program," Amberg said.

Under the old TOR, American troops will only serve as advisers and instructors but are not allowed to fight the Muslim rebels except in self defense.

"In our view, the TOR used in Basilan can do but it would be better that we draft a new TOR for the Balikatan in Sulu and reiterate the conditions that no American troopers would join combat operations," Bunye pointed out.

"In general, we can say that this Balikatan (in Sulu) has almost the same terms although there would be new terms of reference," he added.

Bunye stressed the American troops will only serve as advisers and trainers.

"(They) are here just to observe our Filipino troops so that there could be faster transfer of their technology and expertise in the military (tactics)," he said.

He pointed out, however, that last year's Balikatan in Basilan was also focused on civic and humanitarian projects which was welcomed by the residents of the island province.

"All of these assistance have helped the return to normalcy and condition in Basilan and the Balikatan 02-1 (which) also helped in weakening of the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan. So what the Abu Sayyaf did was to run to Sulu and I believe this Balikatan 03-1 will also help in a similar manner in the province of Sulu," Bunye said.

Bunye also stressed the new TOR would still be subject to detailed discussions by officials of the Department of National Defense and their counterparts in the US military. (Star)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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