BALIKATAN IN ABU SAYYAF AND MILF STRONGHOLDS

Manila, April 10, 2003 -- President Arroyo announced yesterday she had 
approved the deployment of US troops to a stronghold of the Muslim Abu 
Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group in Sulu and the MILF-threatened province of 
North Cotabato.

Speaking at an event to mark a World War II battle in Capas, Tarlac, Mrs. 
Arroyo said Sulu would be among areas to be covered by joint Philippine-US 
military exercises this year.

The annual exercises, known as "Balikatan" (Shoulder-to-Shoulder), were 
held last year in Basilan near Sulu.

"One of our weapons against terrorism is the skills of our soldiers which 
are being enhanced by exercises including the Balikatan. This year 
Balikatan will be held in some places, including Sulu," Mrs. Arroyo said in 
a speech remembering war heroes. "The province of Sulu is strategically 
important and that is why Balikatan will partly be held there."

Previous proposals to hold the exercises in Sulu have met with opposition 
from local groups, including some Philippine officials.

There had also been technical disagreements between Manila and Washington 
over the rules or so-called terms of reference governing the exercises.

The planned exercise stirred controversy after unidentified Pentagon 
officials said in February that US troops would engage in combat against 
the Abu Sayyaf. Philippine officials quickly issued denials.

Under the 1987 Constitution, foreign troops cannot engage in combat in the 
country and American troops in previous exercises could only fire back in 
self-defense.

Mrs. Arroyo did not say how the disagreements had been resolved or when 
American soldiers would be sent to Sulu or how many would go there.

But she said the "anti-terrorism exercises will improve the capability of 
our soldiers to gain ground" in Sulu. The President made no mention of US 
soldiers engaging in combat.

"We acknowledge the opposition to this exercise. We shall take this into 
consideration," in forging the rules governing the deployment of the 
Americans, she said.

She said Sulu "is strategically important and that is why Balikatan will 
partly be held there," citing the continued activities of "terrorists," 
particularly in Sulu.

Despite opposition to the US deployment Mrs. Arroyo said: "The local 
governments want it and this is important for our national security. We are 
determined to cut down the entire body of terrorism in the country and the 
Sulu connection is vital to this objective."

Local Muslim groups opposed the joint exercises in Sulu because of memories 
of bitter clashes between Muslim fighters and US colonial troops in Sulu in 
the early 1900s. (Star)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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