Zamboanga City, March 3, 2003 -- Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya, Southern Command chief, yesterday said Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khadaffy Janjalani is the primary target of stepped-up military operations in Sulu.

Abaya said tracking down Janjalani is the key to the recovery of three Indonesian sailors and four female members of the Jehovah's Witnesses who have been held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf since last year.

One of the Indonesian hostages has reportedly died of complications from diabetes while another has been reportedly executed by his captors. This could not be confirmed by the military.

Janjalani assumed the top Abu Sayyaf post when his elder brother, Abdurajak, founder of the group, was killed in a clash with the police in Basilan in 1998.

Abaya said wiping out Janjalani's group in 90 days as ordered by President Arroyo is feasible.

"We'll try our best as we have always done in the past. Neutralizing the Abu Sayyaf is not all combat. We can make arrests," he said.

He said there are enough government forces in Basilan and Sulu to deal with the bandits.

Abaya said rescuing the seven Abu Sayyaf hostages remains a priority.

"If the hostages are not with a particular group, we can go full blast. We can use our entire firepower," Abaya said. "If they use the hostages as shields, then we will be careful."

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. urged President Arroyo and defense officials to move the RP-US Balikatan 03-1 joint exercises from Sulu to another place in Mindanao.

He said strong opposition from Muslim political leaders and local residents in the insurgency-prone province prompted his suggestion.

Pimentel said the deployment of American troops in combat missions in Sulu under the guise of military exercises would only expose them to attacks by Muslim rebels and bandits.

That would escalate the conflict and give the US an excuse to expand its military presence in the South, he said.

He said some 400 Muslim leaders have declared that they would welcome US development efforts "without a military face."

Malacaņang said the joint Balikatan exercises would be conducted without any foreign troops joining combat missions.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes and his American counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, have already made it clear that training exercises would be conducted within the framework of the Constitution and existing laws.

Bunye said other details, including the time frame and location for the exercises and the drafting of the Balikatan terms of reference, would be discussed further.

Bunye said consultations with residents of Sulu and the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao would be conducted while the terms and details of the exercises are being finalized.

He said the confusion over Balikatan arose from a Washington report, quoting an unnamed source, which said US combat forces would be sent to the Philippines to help crush the Abu Sayyaf. (Malaya)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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