MANILA, February 11, 2004
 (STAR) By Jaime Laude - More than 2,000 US troops will take part in joint military exercises called "Balikatan 2004" with Filipino soldiers in Central Luzon and Palawan starting next week, the Armed Forces said yesterday.

Some American soldiers will be deployed for civic action in Palawan, where 20 tourists, among them three Americans, were snatched by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in May 2001.

American captive Guillermo Sobero was beheaded in June that year, while missionary Martin Burnham was killed when troops tried to rescue him and his wife Gracia from the clutches of the Abu Sayyaf in the jungles of Zamboanga del Norte in June 2002. Gracia survived, and has since returned the United States.

About 2,500 American soldiers and 2,300 Filipino troops will hold on Feb. 23-March 7 a "cross-training and field exercise," the Armed Forces said.

The maneuvers are part of an annual series of joint exercises by the two military allies.

"The exercise will improve combined planning, combat-readiness and inter-operability of the Philippines and US military forces," Armed Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Daniel Lucero said.

Lt. Gen. Rodolfo Garcia, Armed Forces vice chief, said most of the activities in Palawan will focus on computer-based exercises and civic projects like building schools, digging water wells and providing medical services.

"There would not be any field training exercises on ground in Palawan except for the civic assistance and humanitarian assistance portion of (the joint exercises)," he said.

Garcia said about 2,500 American soldiers, mostly Marines backed up by 46 assault and transport aircraft, will take part in the annual Balikatan combat and live-fire maneuvers, from Feb. 23 to March 4.

They will be joined by about 2,300 Filipino soldiers in Northern Luzon and Palawan, he added.

The military said the new round of major war exercises will bring US troops near the disputed Spratly islands and areas where communist guerrillas operate.

Brig. Gen. Rafael Romero, the Filipino exercise director, said there was also a plan for a beach landing exercise at Dingalan Bay off Aurora province.

Communist rebels are active in the mountainous region, he added.

Romero said Balikatan, launched yearly under the 1951 RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty to prepare the longtime military allies for joint combat, is aimed at dealing with external threats but would also deal in part with fighting terrorism. "This is not aimed at any singular threat," he said. "We just want to be prepared ahead of any crisis."

American military officials said last week that a new round of security training of light infantry battalions by less than 100 US military instructors will begin in July or August in Zamboanga City.

US training, weapons and civic projects have been credited with helping the Philippine military cripple and displace the Abu Sayyaf from its jungle strongholds on Basilan island, where hundreds of US Special Forces instructors were deployed in 2000.

The Philippine military said American troops need to continuously train Filipino soldiers and provide military assistance to help prevent the Abu Sayyaf from recovering to launch new attacks.

In recent years, US forces have also carried out anti-terrorist training in Mindanao, where the Armed Forces has been fighting separatists and the Abu Sayyaf.

Adequate security has been prepared for all the venues.

Last year, many residents welcomed the holding of the joint Philippine-US military exercises and humanitarian mission in Sulu.

"The majority of the people in Sulu welcomed the holding of the Balikatan 03-1, citing the benefit that (they) got not only in terms of peace and order but also infrastructure and other humanitarian missions," said Col. Alexander Aleo, commander of the Army’s 104th Infantry Brigade.

The Americans had trained Filipino soldiers in hand-to-hand combat and anti-terrorism operations.

Some 1,700 US soldiers were sent for the training exercise, while another 400 troops were deployed in Zamboanga City as support personnel.

Some 200 US soldiers had trained four light infantry battalions under the $25-million security assistance training and humanitarian mission.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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