U.S. NEWS REPORTS ON COMBAT TROOPS HAVE NO BASIS -- BUNYE  

Manila, Feb. 23, 2003 (Malaya) -- Malacaņang yesterday scoffed at reports that 750 American troops would join Filipino soldiers in combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye did the radio station rounds to say that the unnamed Pentagon official who was cited as the source of the "leak" is probably a "clerk or a minor official at the Pentagon."

"Ang aking palagay mayroong isang minor official diyan sa Pentagon, kung baga, katulad dito sa atin ay mayroong nagdudunung-dunungan na hindi talaga naiintindihan ang kanilang sinasabi," Bunye said.

On Thursday, Pentagon officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the American forces would be involved in an offensive role.

"They are going to conduct joint operations to disrupt and defeat the Abu Sayyaf group," one official said.

Bunye reiterated that the US troops would have "no aggressive combat role" and would just advise and train the Filipino soldiers. He said they would be governed by the same Terms of Reference (TOR) that covered the Balikatan 02 exercises.

He said the Constitution prohibits foreign troops from conducting combat missions on Philippine soil.

He said US-based news agencies like Cable News Network, New York Times, and The Associated Press should name their source, otherwise "masasabi nating it comes from a mistaken source."

"Ito namang CNN ay sumakay naman. Kaya itong CNN ay nakukuryente rin pala," he added.

He told legislators, including those accusing President Arroyo of treason, not to ride on the issue, adding that if Malacaņang's present denials are insufficient, "we will make a stronger denial."

Bunye said the trip of Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes to Washington DC had nothing to do with Balikatan 03-1.

Reyes, who has declined to confirm or deny the reports from the Pentagon sources, is leaving for Hawaii today for talks with US military planners on the coming exercises. After that, he heads to Washington to meet US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Brig. Gen. Gregory Trebon, who replaced Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster as chief of the Special Operations of the US Pacific Command, is arriving tomorrow.

Around 1,750 US troops are heading to Mindanao, including 350 elite Special Operations soldiers who will be deployed in Jolo, one of the Abu Sayyaf lairs.

About 1,000 US troops conducted counter-terrorism exercises with local soldiers in the South last year. They accompanied local troops in the field but stopped short of fighting although they were allowed to fire back in self-defense.

Bunye said the same conditions would apply for the latest exercises.

"Common sense dictates that (firing in self-defense). It's essentially the same terms and conditions as previously," he said.

About a dozen US counter-terrorism soldiers began briefing about 100 Philippine Army troops in Zamboanga City yesterday.

Formal training, under the 10-month "Project Bayanihan," is to begin today in Camp Arturo Enrile in Malagutay village. It will involve briefings and lectures on security and intelligence for about 400 to 500 members of the Light Infantry Battalion.

At least 14 battalions are due for a 10-month training on how to fight terrorism. Two dozen US Army Special Forces members, part of a 70-man team of trainors, are in Zamboanga City.

The US soldiers will also train Air Force pilots in night flying and medical evacuation in Mactan Air Base in Cebu.

Maj. John Amberg, US military spokesman, said 12 trainors who arrived Thursday would not be sent to Sulu where the new anti-terrorism training exercises called Balikatan 03-1 would be held.

The earlier exercises, under Balikatan 02-1, were held in Basilan, Mactan and Zamboanga City last year.

Reyes flew to Jolo with Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya, Southern Command chief, and held consultations with provincial officials led by Jolo Gov. Yusop Jikiri.

"The Muslims in Jolo will benefit from this anti-terrorism training and all these are in accordance with the 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."


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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