BALIKATAN ON SKED IN SULUZamboanga City, April 9, 2003 -- The new Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Narciso Abaya has confirmed that the controversial Balikatan 03-1 joint military exercise with the United States is to be held in Sulu after all. But defense and military officials have apparently left open-ended the issue of whether or not US forces would be deployed in those parts of the province that are deemed as "too hostile." "The presence of US forces in hostile areas may be minimized or they may not be deployed in these areas at all," said the new AFP chief, as he prepared to bow out as commander of military forces in the south based in this city. Abaya said a modified version of the planned exercise could be held in Sulu in May or June for a period of six months. This was decided at a meeting last week with Gen. Joel Weber, commander of the US Marines in Okinawa, Japan. Abaya said the modified Balikatan 03-1 would be a "bigger exercise" than the Balikatan 02-1 held last year in Basilan as it would involve all Philippine troops now deployed in Western Mindanao. The new joint exercise, which was supposed to have been held early this year, was scrapped by US and Philippine defense officials last month in the face of strong objections from Sulu leaders and residents who are said to be still deeply resentful over US Army atrocities during the pacification campaign there at the turn of the century. Militant groups and politicians were also critical of reported plans to deploy US troops in combat operations as this was violative of the Constitution. Maj. Gen. Emmanuel Teodosio, AFP chief of education and training and the director of the Balikatan program, said about 20 planners from the US Pacific Command had conferred with their Philippine counterparts to flesh out the details of the modified plan. Teodosio did not specify Sulu alone, saying the modified plan calls for the exercises to be held in Western Mindanao, with the focus on the Zamboanga peninsula, and the provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. He said the modified plan had been submitted to Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for review. Teodosio said the United States would be spending about 100 million dollars for the first 45 days of the exercises, he said. Another training exercise now going on in Malagutay town, Zamboanga City, was part of the new Balikatan 03-1 exercise, Teodosio said.
Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi
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