U.S. SOLDIERS WARNED OF THREATS IN RP

Clark Field, Pampanga, April 23, 2003- US soldiers participating in this year's joint military exercises with Philippine troops have been barred by US defense officials from venturing outside the exercise venues due to possible terrorist attacks.

"Because the threat level in the Philippines is significant, we have taken extra precautions to ensure the safety of our military personnel. For force protection reasons, we do not discuss details," the US military said in a statement.

In the statement, the US military said "as with every military operation, there is an element of danger. However, force protection is our number one priority, so US military members are required to take safety precautions and fulfill force protection requirements."

US military spokesman Capt. Burrell Parmer, of the US marines, said the warning was issued by the US Department of Defense. He declined to give details about the advisory "for security reasons."

About 1,200 US troops will participate in the exercises dubbed "Balikatan" (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) which will be held here, at Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija and at a Navy training base in Ternate, Cavite.

About 2,000 Philippine troops and personnel will participate in the maneuvers.

Philippine officials have earlier warned against possible "sympathy attacks" by Islamic militants and rebel groups in retaliation for the US-led invasion of Iraq, prompting police and military units across the country to go on alert.

US military officials said the exercises are not related to the planned war games in Sulu, aimed at dismantling the Abu Sayyaf Islamic kidnap gang there. No date yet has been set for the Sulu exercises, which are also under the Balikatan program.

The Abu Sayyaf is a small band of Islamic militants the US and Philippine governments have linked to the al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden and branded as terrorists.

The bandits have launched daring abductions in recent years and are wanted for the murder of two American hostages seized from a beach resort off Palawan in May 2001.

Asked whether the US military is prepared for any possible terrorist attacks during the exercises, Parmer said, "we will defend ourselves like any other normal person."

Parmer said the troops have been ordered not to venture beyond designated exercise areas to avoid potential attacks. "We're not here to go to bars anyway," he said.

Such attacks, however, seemed "unlikely," he said, adding that the Philippine police and the military are providing sufficient security.

The soldiers have been billeted at the Mimosa and Fontana resort complexes, and other hotels within the Clark special economic zone, a former US air base that closed in 1991.

Hundreds of US marines and other military personnel arrived here yesterday aboard two chartered Boeing 747 jumbo jets for the exercises, to start on Friday. Parmer said the troops came from bases in Japan, Guam and Hawaii. None of them participated in the just-concluded war in Iraq.

They are the last batch of US military personnel arriving for the exercises, which will last until May 9, information officer Maj. Kelvin Bledsoe told The STAR. Hundreds of US soldiers had already landed at the Subic Freeport, a former US naval base in Zambales, he said.

The US military said the exercises are "not related to any contingency involving US forces" such as the US invasion of Iraq. "However, these types of US personnel or units would be available to respond to any contingency, emergency, or disaster throughout the Asia-Pacific region."

Aside from the usual war games, maneuvers and drills, the US military will also undertake "civic-military operations" such as medical missions and building infrastructure for the benefit of nearby communities, it said.

Because of "ongoing global commitments" such as the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of US troops participating in this year's joint exercises is smaller compared to that in previous years.

But the US military said "the reduction will not lessen Philippine and US armed forces' ability to complete exercise training objectives." (By Ding Cervantes, Star)


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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