MANILA, January 15, 2004 (STAR) By Marvin Sy - Citing safety concerns, the US Peace Corps in the Philippines has decided against deploying any of its volunteers in Mindanao.

Bill Benjamin, country director for the Peace Corps, told reporters volunteers have been pulled out from Mindanao since March 2003 after a "careful assessment of the security situation" in the region.

Benjamin said around 15 Peace Corps volunteers in Northern Mindanao were pulled out last March.

Even with the pullout of volunteers from Mindanao, Benjamin said the Peace Corps will continue its work in other parts of the country.

Peace Corps volunteers in the Philippines are assigned in nine regions, particularly in Bicol and other parts of Luzon as well as the Visayas.

Under the program which started in October 1961, volunteers carried out a teacher training program in which all mentors in Mindanao were included.

Peace Corps director Gaddi Vasquez said they will still maintain a "sizable presence" in the Philippines.

According to Vasquez, 40 new volunteers are arriving within the month to continue and expand the program.

Vasquez said volunteers already deployed in the country even want an extension of their stay in the Philippines from two to three years.

Vasquez, however, admitted that security remains a "top priority" for American volunteers in 71 countries, including the Philippines where Muslim and communist rebels operate.

At present, there are 134 Peace Corps volunteers deployed nationwide. When the program started in 1961, there were about 8,000 volunteers.

The Peace Corps program has diversified into nearly all sectors of development work to include projects in agriculture, forestry, small business management, environment, conservation, health, urban and regional planning, water sanitation, fisheries, youth and education.

The program was suspended for 18 months following the kidnapping of a volunteer by communist guerrillas on Negros island in 1990.

In 1996, a volunteer was shot and wounded by suspected illegal loggers in the Bicol National Park. The following year another volunteer was killed in a robbery in Iloilo.

Despite the security threats in the Philippines, Vasquez said over 7,500 Americans have volunteered in 2003, the largest number in 28 years.

"We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of Americans who are willing and prepared to serve in the Peace Corps post-9/11," Vasquez said.

"I think itís a good reason to be optimistic that Americans of all faiths, of all backgrounds are interested in serving the Peace Corps. The willingness and desire to serve has not diminished. It has expanded and it has grown," he said.

With the adverse travel advisories being issued by developed countries like the United States, the security of Peace Corps volunteers was taken into consideration particularly in Mindanao.

The advisories consistently discourage all travel to Mindanao due to threats of terrorism and the deteriorating peace and order situation.

Communist and Muslim separatist rebels and the al-Qaeda-linked Muslim extremist Abu Sayyaf group operate in the region. The Abu Sayyaf have kidnapped foreigners in the past, among them American missionaries in 2001. - Marvin Sy

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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