Zamboanga City, Feb. 27, 2003 -- The people of Sulu would welcome the presence of American soldiers during the Balikatan 03-1 military exercise, but only if they would not be involved in combat operations, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Gov. Parouk Hussin said yesterday.

Hussin, a former guerrilla leader, said Sulu residents still remember the massacre of their ancestors by American soldiers a century ago, and warned that this animosity may be rekindled if visiting US troops engage in combat against the Abu Sayyaf, the Islamist group now holed up in the island-province of Sulu.

He said the government should "tread carefully on sensitive issues like active participation in combat operations."

Malacañang previously denied reports from the Pentagon that US troops will be used in combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf.

Hussin, a Tausug from Jolo, Sulu and former senior leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), emphasized he was not consulted by Malacañang in selecting Sulu as the site of this year’s RP-US military exercise.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Amado Valdez, executive secretary of the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFACom), earlier said that Sulu was chosen precisely because of the strong clamor of local officials.

But Hussin said he was not aware of such clamor. He, however, admitted that the people of Sulu would welcome Balikatan if the Americans would not be engaged in direct combat with the Abu Sayyaf.

Hussin said he believed that Filipino troops are "very much on top of the situation" and have "marginalized" the Abu Sayyaf who he said are on the run.

"We are not objecting to their (American troops) coming, training our soldiers, and providing them with equipment," he added.

Hussin also stressed that the Constitution particularly prohibits foreign combat troops in Philippine territory, and said allowing the Americans to fight the Abu Sayyaf could lead to "accidents, especially casualties from our friends outside."

"They might retaliate massively, and who will be the victims again? Civilians," he added.

Malacañang was caught off-guard when reports, quoting a Pentagon official, announced US troops are taking on combat roles in the war exercises in Sulu, which were supposedly meant to train "on the job" Filipino soldiers while pursuing the Abu Sayyaf.

Philippine officials downplayed the reports, saying this would violate a constitutional ban on foreign combat troops.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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