Manila, Feb. 28, 2003- Malacanang appears to be backtracking on the issue of US combat troops to fight the Abu Sayayf in Jolo, as top government officials yesterday met with the leaders of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao and the elected local government leaders of Sulu province.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye also sought to allay fears by Moslem leaders in the area that the deployment could trigger a wider war, saying the upcoming Balikatan 03-1 mission was aimed at crushing the Abu Sayyaf group linked to the al-Qaeda terror network.

“US troops will not be involved in offensive combat nor in any unilateral operations,” Bunye said in a statement after members of a Cabinet panel on internal security briefed apprehensive Moslem leaders on the planned war games.

“US military personnel will undertake counter-terrorism training assistance and support for (Filipino) troops and will at all times be under the supervision of (Philippine military) officers,” he added.

Bunye said the Balikatan exercises would be similar to the Basilan province last year, where US advisers trained Filipino soldiers against the Abu Sayyaf but were barred from actual combat.

No dates were mentioned as to when the Jolo operations would begin, and Filipino military officials earlier said it could start by mid-year. But, a US carrier is reportedly already on its way to Sulu.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer last week said about 1,750 US soldiers are to “assist” Filipino troops in Jolo, but did not say whether they would take part in actual combat.

A US defense official, however, had told newsmen at a Washington briefing that American troops would join in the fighting.

Yusop Jikiri, the governor of Sulu province that covers Jolo, and Autonomous Region Governor Parouk Hussin expressed “concerns that there might be resistance” from local villagers, owing to the area's history of struggle against US troops at the start of the last century.”

The plan to conduct dialogues with Sulu residents prompted by their strong opposition to the American military presence, was arived at after yesterday's meeting of the Cabinet Oversight Committee on Internal Security (COCIS) in Malacañang where Hussin and Jakiri were invited and finally reportedly agreed to head a consultation team.

Both Hussein and Jakiri will participate in the dialogues with the Sulu residents and were expected to explain further the advantages of the war games.

But Bunye could not explain why the government had arranged with its US counterpart the details of the Balikatan in Sulu without first consulting Sulu officials.

Malacañang said it will wait for results of the meeting Thursday (Washington time) of Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes with his US counterpart, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in Washington before coming up with formal details on the Balikatan exercises. (Tribune)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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