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Role of U.S. to Grow in Hunt

Philippines: Training will increase and troops are to engage in joint anti-rebel patrols, officials say. Mission still is to end next month.

June 20, 2002|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has agreed to intensify U.S. military operations in the Philippines by permitting American forces to join in the hunt for Muslim guerrillas, but it has declined a request by top generals to keep troops there beyond the end of July, defense officials said Wednesday.

The Americans are still constrained by a clause in the Philippine Constitution that forbids foreign troops to engage in combat except in self-defense. But they are at risk of coming under fire as they patrol for members of the separatist group Abu Sayyaf, said defense officials who asked not to be identified.

The Green Berets will also begin instructing Philippine troops in smaller groups than at the battalion level, permitting more intense training than has been provided since the six-month exercise began in February.

Other details of the changes in the counter-terrorism training mission on Basilan island are still being worked out in consultation with members of Congress and the Philippine government.

The change in ground rules was designed in part to satisfy Philippine government and army officials who wanted the U.S. forces to take a more direct role in the effort to track down Abu Sayyaf rebels. President Bush approved the plan after a White House briefing Tuesday, in keeping with the emerging administration policy of preemptively striking potential terrorists.

Although the U.S. commander in the Pacific, Adm. Thomas Fargo, and American commanders in the Philippines recommended an expanded mission, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had said as recently as last month that he wasn't yet convinced of the need. But Rumsfeld recommended the changes after Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz visited U.S. troops on the ground and filed his own report, officials said.

"The I's aren't all dotted and the Ts aren't all crossed yet, but there is an agreement," a senior defense official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

The change in policy will increase the American military presence in the Philippines by no more than 60 troops, the Pentagon said. There are nearly 1,000 U.S. troops in the region, including more than 600 Special Forces soldiers.

Although the advisory mission of the Special Forces troops will end in July, other security assistance will probably continue, one Pentagon official said. Details of that assistance remain murky.

Long before Sept. 11, the Pentagon maintained close ties and conducted training missions with the Philippine military. That included training and equipping a light-reaction company of 80 to 100 Philippine soldiers, modeled after the U.S. Delta Force, to go after the Abu Sayyaf. The U.S. had agreed before the current advisory mission to train two more companies, and the Pentagon is asking Congress to fund the program.

The mission takes place in a war zone, including regions the Philippine government does not control. Basilan island is home to up to 100 Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, who have been linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.

U.S. Marines exchanged fire with guerrillas on Basilan for the first time Monday. There were no U.S. casualties, and a search of the jungle area afterward found no evidence of rebel casualties.

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