OTHER PLACES EYED FOR BALIKATAN 03-1   

Manila, March 4, 2003 -- Philippine and US defense officials are considering the holding of Balikatan 03-1 in places other than Abu Sayyaf-infested Sulu, the original site.

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, on arrival yesterday from a one-week visit to Washington where he met with his American counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, said the training is on but it will be conducted in accordance with Philippine laws and in "maximum consideration of the sensitivities of the people."

Asked if the communist rebel-plagued Southern Tagalog is among the proposed alternatives sites, Reyes said: "That is an open question. As I said, the United States is sensitive to our laws. They will not do anything that we don't need and we don't want."

Holding the exercise in Sulu generated controversy after Pentagon officials disclosed American troops would be engaged in combat against the Abu Sayyaf in what critics said was a violation of the Constitution.

Reyes sought to convince Rumsfeld the participation of American forces would still fall under the AFP definition of training, but the US defense chief said the contemplated role was, by US definition, combat operation.

Military officials said there is growing support among Sulu local executives for the holding of Balikatan on the island.

Southern Command spokesman Lt. Col. Daniel Lucero said Siasi Mayor Arthur Muksan has said residents of his island-town welcome the presence of Americans.

Lucero said Luuk town residents also expressed willingness to host the exercise. (By VICTOR REYES, Malaya)


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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