BALIKATAN MOVING TO MILF STRONGHOLD?

Zamboanga City, March 27, 2003 -- The Philippines and the United States are
to sign a new Terms of Reference for the stalled joint anti-terrorism
training exercises on Mindanao island, Southern Command chief Lt. Gen.
Narciso Abaya said Thursday.

"The new terms of reference is now being discussed between the the
Philippines and the United States and this would be far different than what
we have in the past joint military training in the southern Philippines,"
Abaya, who is to assume as the new Armed Forces chief next month, told
reporters at a news conference.

The RP-US training, dubbed as Balikatan 03-1 (Hand-to-hand), was supposed
to start last month in Jolo, but has been stalled after Muslim politicians
have opposed the deployment of US troops in the southern Philippine island,
about 950 km from Manila.

Politicians in Jolo said the presence of US soldiers in the island would
ignite hatred and violence because of the killing by US soldiers of more
than 600 Muslims during the American-Filipino war in 1906, known as the
"Battle of the Clouds."

Abaya, who was recently in Washington to discuss the new Terms of
Reference, said the joint training would push through in the southern
Philippines, probably in central Mindanao, where security forces are
battling the separatist Muslim rebel group the Moro Islamic Liberation
Front (MILF). He did not say when the training would start.

"All I can say is that it could be held in central Mindanao, but we cannot
say how US and RP sodliers would be involved in the Balikatan 03-1. The
Terms of Reference of the previous Balikatan 02-1 would not be copied or
duplicated in the new joint training exercise. The new Terms of Reference
is more modified to reflect the sensitivity and sentiments of the host
country and would be in accordance with the Philippine Constitution," Abaya
said.

He said the new RP-US training exercise is important to the Armed Forces of
the Philippines in combating terrorism.

Abaya said: "We need this military exercise with the United States because
this would further enhance the capability of the Armed Forces of the
Philippines to effectively combat terrorism. There is much to be done if we
want to neutralize the Abu Sayyaf group with finality -- this is the
mission of the joint RP-US training exercise."

Last year, some 3,000 US and RP troops have participated in a six-month
counterterrorism training exercises in the strife-torn Basilan island,
dubbed as Balikatan 02-1, that led to the killing of several key Abu Sayyaf
leaders, including Abu Sabaya, who was tagged by the military as behind the
kidnapping and killing of American hostages Guillermo Sobero and Martin
Burnham. (Al Jacinto PHNO Mindanao Bureau)


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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