MORE CONSERVATIVE BALIKATAN TERMS SOUGHT

Manila, March 23, 2003 -- Noting the massive anti-American sentiments over
the war being waged by US-led coalition forces against Iraq, President
Arroyo ordered yesterday the drafting of new terms of reference (TOR) for
the holding of RP-US Balikatan 03-1 joint military exercises and make them
"more conservative."

Mrs. Arroyo pointed out the holding of Balikatan 03-1 in Sulu or in any
other area in Mindanao might be complicated by the Philippines joining the
US-led "coalition of the willing" in supporting military strikes against
Iraq since Thursday.

"And because of this complication, it is part of sensitivity on the people
of Sulu, and even to the Muslim population given there is a war going on in
Iraq that we fashion the TOR more on the prudent side rather than the
aggressive side," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo said there is no final decision yet on the possible venue of
Balikatan 03-1.

But she claimed residents in Sulu, who initially opposed the presence of US
troops in the island-province, have asked for her reconsideration to hold
it there as originally planned.

Mrs. Arroyo said that in holding the exercises in Sulu, Filipino troops
would be trained better to fight the bandit Abu Sayyaf.

"Because it's an Abu Sayyaf area. And when I accepted Balikatan in Basilan
at that time, the Abu Sayyaf were very great threat and you really needed
to take some risks, even to do something that even might be unpopular. As
it turned out, it was not unpopular among the people there," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo said the opposition in holding the Balikatan in Sulu was "more
pronounced" given the backdrop of the Iraq and Middle East situation. "So
it became more complicated," she said.

In case Sulu should be reconsidered as the next venue for the Balikatan war
exercises, Mrs. Arroyo said the local officials should now negotiate
directly with American military officials.

"I told them to put that in writing and talk with Americans and negotiate
with them directly because I think that considering how many provinces want
Balikatan to be held there. I don't think we should force it on a province
that doesn't want it," the President said.

"But I want very specific, a more conservative TOR than we had in Basilan,"
she added.

Mrs. Arroyo earlier disclosed the military and defense agencies are
evaluating various areas in the country where Balikatan 03-1 joint military
exercises could be held.

Because of the stiff objections in using Sulu as the venue for the war
exercises, Mrs. Arroyo clarified Balikatan 03-1 would still be conducted
elsewhere.

It was widely expected that the planned joint military operation in Sulu
would neutralize the Abu Sayyaf who have been kidnapping Christians and
foreigners for decades, holding them hostage in the jungles of the island
province.

The Abu Sayyaf has been linked by both Washington and Manila to the
al-Qaeda network of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden. The bandit group is
still holding three Indonesian seamen and four Filipina Christian preachers
in the jungles of Sulu. (Star)


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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