Manila, Feb. 25, 2003 -- Senate President Franklin M. Drilon asked the Senate foreign relations committee yesterday to immediately conduct a public hearing to determine once and for all whether the American soldiers in the current RP-US Balikatan military exercise in Sulu will engage in combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf.

The request to the committee chaired by Sen. Manuel Villar was made following conflicting reports on the actual role of American soldiers in the military exercise with Pentagon saying the US soldiers would team up with Filipino soldiers against the Abu Sayyaf.

In a related development, Sen. Rodolfo G. Biazon, vice chairman of the Senate national defense committee, asked National Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes to submit a report on his US mission to the Legislative Oversight Committee on the Visiting Forces Agreement (LOCVFA) upon his arrival from Washington "to clarify once and for all whether the joint RP-US military exercise in Sulu is a combat operation against the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf or purely a training activity."

Malacaņang had said that the US soldiers would simply hold military training and exercises with Filipino soldiers or act as advisers. It threatened to scrap the military exercise agreement if the US soldiers will conduct combat operations against the terrorists.

Villar, also chairman of the Senate finance committee, now busy with his legislative duties following his sponsorship speech on the Malacaņang proposed R804 billion national budget, could not give a definite date on the public hearing on the issue but said he had asked Reyes for the terms of reference on the Balikatan military exercises.

Reyes is now in the US to confer with US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Villar said he agrees with administration Sen. Ralph Recto, one of the chairmen of the various sub-committees of the finance committee, that they would block any attempt to include any appropriations for any planned participation of the Philippines in any US-led invasion of Iraq.

Villar said the proposed budget was formulated to tackle external and internal concerns such as the impact of a possible US-led invasion on Iraq on the national economy and the ballooning budget deficit.

The First Mindanao Muslim Leaders' Summit held in Davao City over the weekend attended by opposition Sen. Aquilino Q. Pimentel Jr. passed a resolution opposing an all-out war in Mindanao and the "Balikatan" war exercises in Sulu and supporting proposal for a shift to federalism and US peace and development efforts.

Pimentel asked why the joint military exercises must be held in Sulu and not in other safe places in the Philippines.

Villar said the sending of the US soldiers to Sulu is ill timed especially with the threat of the US to launch an invasion of Iraq and may fuel further Muslim animosity towards the Americans.

"I hope Malacaņang will scrap the agreement if the US sends its soldiers to fight in Sulu," Villar said. (By Mario B. Casayuran, Bulletin)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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