Manila, March 1, 2003 -- President Arroyo set yesterday a 90-day deadline for the military to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf amid growing opposition to the planned deployment of US troops to fight the Islamist guerrillas in Sulu.

"I have... given the military a deadline for the Abu Sayyaf: 90 days," the President told reporters at Camp Capinpin in Tanay, Rizal. "They follow deadlines very well. I told them to capture Buliok in three days and they did. So I suppose if they do the proper allocation of resources they will be able to finish the threat of the Abu Sayyaf."

Buliok served as a stronghold of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Pikit, North Cotabato. Government forces overran the stronghold last week.

The President did not say when the 90 days would commence.

Armed Forces chief Gen. Dionisio Santiago, who was with the President in Tanay, warned that military commanders who fail to perform will be replaced.

He also said the military will relocate forces to beef up troops in Sulu, and review tactics, especially intelligence gathering, against the Islamist group, which has been linked to the al-Qaeda network of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.

For his part, military Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya said the 90-day deadline is a "very short time but we will try our best as we have always done in the past."

Abaya declined to give details of their plans to finish off the Abu Sayyaf in a short span of time.

"We donít need to disclose our operations as they might be preempted," he said.

He said that this deadline will "affect the timetable in other areas," particularly efforts to deal with other rebel groups.

Mrs. Arroyo clarified that the ongoing joint RP-US military exercises in Zamboanga dubbed the "Bayanihan" is not yet the Balikatan 03-1.

"The training that going on in Zamboanga is a $25-million training program. Thatís part of the things that weíve been able to work out during my visit to Washington in November 2001," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo is set to fly again to the US on April 2, this time on a state visit to meet and talk with US President George W. Bush at the White House.

The President issued the 90-day deadline to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) after her top security aides recommended the deferment of the scheduled RP-US Balikatan 03-1 anti-terrorist training exercises to be held in Sulu until after the US-Iraq conflict is over, The STAR learned yesterday.

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, who is currently conferring with his American counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, in Washington, will formally relay the Philippine governmentís decision on this matter.

The recommendation was made by the Cabinet Oversight Committee on Internal Security (COCIS), headed by Executive Secretary Alberto Romulo, during their meeting at MalacaŮang last Thursday when they discussed the stiff objections on the reported involvement of US troopers in combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu.

Asked about the opposition to the Sulu deployment, the President said: "I donít react to the statements of other people."

She stressed the US troop deployment to Sulu was "still under consultation," noting their dates and details of the arrival have not yet been fixed.

While there is no official announcement yet from the Palace of the postponement of Balikatan 03-1, the President issued the 90-day deadline to refute claims by former American ambassador Frank Wisner that it was the Philippine governmentís request to allow US troops to participate in the fight against the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu.

Wisner, who served as ambassador to the Philippines from 1991 to 1993 and also served as US deputy defense secretary, was quoted as saying the Abu Sayyaf threat in Sulu was "beyond the means of the AFP to deal with it."

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye denied Wisnerís claim, saying "there was no such request (for combat operations). But the stand of the Philippines is the American troops could help but their presence is not indispensable."

Bunye reiterated that the terms of reference of Balikatan 03-1 in Sulu will follow the same patterns as Balikatan 02-1 in Sulu, wherein American trainers and military advises were allowed to conduct anti-terrorist training exercises "at company level" with Filipino troopers.

"The proposal of MalacaŮang now is to retain the same level of company training, which means the American trainers and advisers that would be far from the actual combat operations," Bunye said/

He added that "all of these proposals are still being studied but we can be reassured that whatever agreement is reached, they would not violate the Constitution and existing laws."

Nationalist groups have criticized the decision as a violation of the Constitution, while Muslim leaders in the area warn the Americans will be met with hostility.

The Abu Sayyaf has bedeviled Manila for about a decade, kidnapping Christians and foreigners and holding them hostage in the jungles of Jolo and other southern islands while evading government efforts to crush them.

The group still holds three Indonesian seamen and four Filipina Christian preachers hostage in Jolo despite a massive military manhunt.

Meanwhile, Santiago said the AFP will redouble its efforts and focus on the review of troop leadership procedures and basic training, including planning, reconnaissance and supervision.

The militaryís intelligence-gathering capability will also be assessed, according to Santiago.

"We will review tactics. We will see if intelligence is not performing efficiently. We will set the goals and find the reasons for non-accomplishment. We will be frank if it is a military failure," he said.

As part of the AFPís efforts to crush the Abu Sayyaf, Santiago said "commanders will be replaced if they are not performing. There would be a nationwide movement. There may be other officers who may be luckier."

Though Santiago expressed confidence that the AFP can meet the Presidentís deadline to quash the Abu Sayyaf, he admitted that it would be an uphill fight.

"It is feasible but it would involve an element of luck. We feel that our strategy is efficient," he said, noting that the Abu Sayyaf now has only 460 members 380 in Sulu and 80 in Basilan.

Santiago said that "the smaller (in number) they become, the more difficult it is to track them. This is the situation we are now facing. We will see if we can utilize special tactics against them."

He added that their offensive against the Abu Sayyaf was hampered by the string of encounters the military had with the MILF and by the AFPís lack of sophisticated equipment.

Time is also running out, according to the AFP chief of staff.

"If we can do this within three months, we would do it. In fact, I hope we can do this before my retirement on April 8," he said.

Santiago also said that the AFP can manage the threat posed by the Abu Sayyaf despite the offer of help by the US military.

"If we could have them (US support), that would be better. But for now, we plan to do it on our own," he said.

According to AFP acting spokesman Lt. Col. Michael Manquiquis, there are around 3,200 soldiers deployed in Sulu and 2,000 troops in Basilan. (Star)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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