Davao City, Feb. 23, 2003 -- Alarmed at the discovery of a reported secret deal forged between Manila and Washington on the American covert combat operations in Jolo, Sulu, Mindanao lawmakers and some local officials here yesterday warned the coming of American troops to fight the Abu Sayyaf could lead to more bloodshed as Moslems may unite to fight the American troops.

“I am afraid this might be fraught with danger,” Parouk Hussin, ARMM governor, said during a pre-summit press conference at the Grand Men Seng Hotel in Davao City.

At the same time, Malacañang’s denials of a private deal forged between President Arroyo and US President George W. Bush, along with Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld allowing some 1,700 American soldiers, including 750 ground troops and 350 Green Berets, supported by Cobra attack helicopters and Harrier AV-SB attack planes that will stand ready aboard two ships offshore to act as a quick response force and provide logistics, to do combat duty and “destroy” the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo and other parts of Mindanao, are not being bought by the public.

Not even officials in the Foreign Affairs office buy the Palace denial, insiders told the Tribune yesterday.

Highly-placed government sources disclosed that while there may be no formal written agreement, there certainly was an “agreement in principle” between Manila and Washington allowing covert US combat operations in Mindanao.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye challenged the US media, saying if the Pentagon official quoted by the US media would insist on the story, the Philippine government will ask Washington to impose a gag order on the Pentagon official.

Bunye also dared the US media to name their Pentagon source. “So unless they come up with their source, we can say they quoted a mistaken source,” he said.

The peace summit attended by Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, Representatives Gerry Salapuddin, Faysah Dumarpa and Didagen Dilangalen and Hussin of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was called to rally the Moslems to a common stand on the ongoing military offensive in Sulu, the arrival of the American troops and to come up with a lasting solution to the Mindanao conflict.

According to Dilangalen and Dumarpa, Moslems should stand up against the participation of the US troops in actual combat against supposed Islamic rebels in Sulu.

Dilangalen charged that the presence of the US troops is actually an “invasion” which should not be allowed by the government.

Hussin lamented that local officials in Mindanao have not been consulted by Malacañang and the Department of National Defense on the alleged Balikatan exercises.

“Had we been consulted, we could have contributed positively to the operation and prevent any untoward incident,” he said, hinting at the possibility that the people of Sulu would fight the American troops.

“People are very poor but everyone owns a gun,” the governor added.

The Mindanao officials, crossing party lines, took a single stand that foreign troops should never be allowed to participate in combat operations.

The officials maintained that the impending participation of US troops in actual combat against the Abu Sayyaf and other rebel groups is “a blatant violation of the Constitution.”

Hussin, for his part, said the last visit of the Americans to Sulu, over a hundred years ago, was also characterized by bloodshed.

“The last time, the American visit to Sulu was characterized by confrontation and massacre. And there is a wide apprehension among our leaders about this,” he added.

While the Palace continued to deny Pentagon disclosures that the US will be engaged in a combat mission at the Abu Sayyaf stronghold in the South, Bunye said media giants such as Cable News Network (CNN), the New York Times and the Washington Post were victims of a “bum steer,” or kuryente in local journalists’ parlance.

“I think it was a minor Pentagon know it all who doesn’t know what he or she is saying. But what is amazing is that CNN believed the story. So CNN must also be vulnerable to bum steers,” he said in a radio interview.

Jolo residents reacted to the American military presence on their island by warning the government of suicide attacks similar to those of the “juramentados” or Moslem fanatics of the 1900s who set out to kill as many foreign troops or Christians as possible before being killed themselves.

The same diplomatic sources said Manila and Washington earlier approved the deployment of US troops to fight alongside Filipino soldiers, but said the Philippine side decided to reconsider the matter as a unilateral foreign combat mission on Philippine territory would be in direct violation of the Constitution.

They pointed out, however, that both governments would likely find a way to skirt legal issues on the joint combat operations by drafting a new Terms of Reference, which will fashioned in accordance with the Constitution and Philippine laws. (Tribune)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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