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THE WORLD

Philippine Rebels Feel U.S. Presence

April 20, 2002|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISABELA, Philippines — The campaign of kidnapping and terror waged for a decade by Muslim extremists on Basilan island hasn't ended yet, but residents believe that they know why the tide seems to be turning in the government's favor.

It's because of the American soldiers who recently arrived, and their high-tech equipment.

"The Americans are superior," math teacher Mario Orbigoso said as he slouched at the front gates of a school. "They can see at night."

Off-duty police Sgt. Jalal Masalim agreed.

"The rebels don't come now because they're afraid of the Americans and their technology," he said. "Things are better in the town."

Virtually everyone agrees that the 160 U.S. Special Forces soldiers here are making a difference--and not just in the effort to crush the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group.

In a small anteroom of the modest Santa Isabela Cathedral, Roman Catholic priest Rodel Angeles said he believes the Americans will help check the official corruption that he and others believe has helped prolong the conflict.

"Those [officials] who are insincere will be more cautious now," the priest said. "The Americans are monitoring things closely."

The fact that such a small U.S. force--one not even allowed to engage in combat--can dramatically transform attitudes is a measure of both the size of American power and the expectations that go along with it. It also raises questions about the longer-term implications of U.S. involvement.

Although the arrival of the Americans has lifted the spirits of the mainly Christian population of Isabela, members of Basilan island's Muslim majority see it differently. Even moderates question American intentions and suggest that the U.S. presence may be sowing the seeds of an even more bitter conflict.

"Our people need homes, jobs, health care and an education, not to be attacked by helicopters," said Jack Jikiri, head of the privately funded Al Amin Society, which promotes youth education among Muslims. "If you harass us today, the next generation will only hate you for it. You're not resolving problems, you're creating new ones."

It is widely accepted here that poverty is one of the main reasons that young men join extremist groups like the Abu Sayyaf. Rebel leaders lure young men with promises of a weapon, a share of ransom money and the vague idea of fighting for an Islamic homeland.

About 600 U.S. soldiers opened America's first Southeast Asian front in the war against terrorism earlier this year after intelligence reports linked the leadership of the Abu Sayyaf to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. Many of those 600 are supporting operations on Basilan from locations elsewhere in the Philippines.

More than 300 additional American soldiers--mainly construction engineers--reportedly arrived Friday on Basilan to improve roads and port facilities and build helipads. U.S. military officials said the work will serve a dual purpose, making operations against the Abu Sayyaf easier while also aiding economic development.

Somewhere on the island, Abu Sayyaf rebels hold three hostages--Philippine nurse Deborah Yap and an American missionary couple, Gracia and Martin Burnham. All have been held for nearly 11 months despite efforts by a 3,500-strong Philippine military force to free them.

It's not U.S. firepower that is altering the military balance. Night-vision goggles, modern communications equipment, electronic surveillance aircraft and the ability to mount night helicopter rescue operations have intimidated the rebels, boosted Philippine army morale and left ordinary citizens in awe.

"When I saw two Chinooks fly over, I thought, 'Wow,' " recalled government worker Geraldine Valbuena of her first glance at the giant American troop-carrying helicopter. "Then I saw my first C-17. I couldn't believe it."

The C-17, one of the largest cargo aircraft in the U.S. military, is big enough to dwarf the Philippine armed forces' C-130 transports.

P-3 Orion aircraft, carrying surveillance equipment capable of detecting movement beneath the thick jungle canopy, and Black Hawk helicopters able to pluck wounded soldiers out of the battlefield at night also have combined to tilt the scales.

No longer able to move at night with impunity, guerrillas have been harassed by Philippine forces with increased frequency in recent weeks. They have also suffered greater casualties.

"We can do the fighting, but the Americans are there with all this equipment," said Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan, chief spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. "It's a multiplier we've never had--Chinooks, electronic sensors--these are things we've only dreamed of, but now they are there. The pressure from the Americans is demoralizing the enemy."

All this has given residents a feeling that the fighting might be ending. Muslims are trickling back to remote villages that they had abandoned because they were afraid of being either trapped by the fighting or suspected by government forces of abetting the rebels.

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