Philippine soldiers graduating from a month-long counterterrosism training.Zamboanga City, April 7, 2003 -- The first batch of Philippine soldiers trained by US Special Forces to fight terrorism have graduated Sunday in the southern port city of Zamboanga, scene of a recent fierce fighting between security forces and Islamic militants.

About 150 Army soldiers have finished a month-long training in the village of San Ramos in the western oustkirt of Zamboanga City and security officials said they would be sent to the strife-torn Basilan island to hunt down Abu Sayyaf rebels.

One of those who graduated was a former Muslim rebel for 27 years -- Tutoh Juhaili, now at 55 -- he said he was thankful to the US military for the training he received.

"I am old and I am happy and glad to be amng those who were chosen to undergo this very rigid training. It is very different from the training that I took during my rebel years," Juhaili told reporters after the graduation.

One of his companion said Juhaili sometimes complained to them of rheumatism, but that he endured the training. "I am happy for him and so is everybody here," the soldier said.

Juhaili, a former member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), was among the 7,500 guerrillas integrated into the military and the police after the government and the separatist rebel group signed a peace agreement in September 1996. The military said integration of former rebels into the armed forces was part of the accord.

Holding his automatic rifle tightly and posing for pictures, Juhaili said: "This is history. Had I not join the government, I don't know what would become of me and my family. Life in the jungle was difficult and now I must admit I am for peace."

"After 72 hours, all of you would return to your unit and I hope this training would make your jobs more easy...to hunt down lawless elements and to maintain peace and order," an Army Col. Nemesio Pajarito, the chief of staff of the First Infantry Division told the soldiers.

The ceremony was held on a hillside military training base about 40 km west of this largely Christian City, where security forces have killed two Abu Sayyaf rebels in fierce fighting Thursday.

A US military spokesman Major Steve Amberg said: "The Filipino soldiers are great and they learn so fast and we are really proud of them."

Amberg said the training, which started last month, would continue with the second batch of Philippine Army soldiers now readying to undergo similar lectures and field training. US Special Forces have trained Filipino troops in intellgence, weapons markmanship and medical evacutation among others, as part of the US Security Assistance Traing Program to the Philippines.

"Your government has asked us to be here and we are here training Filipino soldiers and we are happy to help to our ally," he said.

US Special Forces commander Major Kevin Colyer distributed training certificates to the soldiers and shook hands with them after the graduation. "What can I say? This is a very special day to everybody. The first batch of Filipino soldiers have finished the course and I hope they can help and train other soldiers also. This training is a big boost in our fight against terrorism," he told reporters.

The graduation was followed by a joint US-RP medical mission in the remote village of Talisayan, about 30 km west of Zamboanga City, where more than a thousand people have gathered as early as 5 a.m. for the free services.

The Taiwanese civic group Tzu Chi Foundation have provided medicines and used clothings to the people. US personnel have performed minor surgeries to more than a dozen patients inside the tightly guarded school where the medical mission was held.

Filipino and US soldiers were spotted around the school, some with bomb-sniffing dogs and others on humvee vehicles mounted with machine guns. Some US soldiers, heavily-camouflaged and armed, were seen playing and giving candies to children, one Special Forces member was babysitting a weeping boy.

"They are good. I called them...Hey Joe! and the American soldiers waved back and gave me sweets. I like them...all of them because they are kind to my sisters and the other kids and they played with," said a 12-year boy named Joaquin Fernandez, his entire family travelled from a village about 15 km away just to avail of the free medical services.

Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya said the Medical-Civic Action Project (Medcap) is a community-service activity designed to bring medical and dental services to people who may not have them. "This provide opportunities for people to consult with medical personnel about their health concerns and receive appropriate guidance, to include medications, to treat illnesses and injuries," he said.

It was the 3rd time in more than 2 months that the US and Philippine military held medical mission in Zamboanga City. Abaya said it part of the Project Bayanihan, codename for the ongoing joint military training exercises involving at least 370 US soldiers and about 1,500 Filipino troops. (Al Jacinto PHNO Mindanao Bureau)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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