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U.S. Troops to Fight in Philippines

Part of the 3,000-strong force will help hunt down Muslim rebels noted for kidnappings. The mission is seen as a significant escalation.

February 21, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The United States is sending about 3,000 troops to the Philippines in the coming weeks to help root out Muslim extremists in the southern part of the archipelago nation, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

The plans represent a significant escalation of the U.S. military's role in the Philippines at a time when the Bush administration is preoccupied with preparations for a possible war with Iraq.

Unlike recent deployments of Americans for training exercises with Philippine troops, officials said, the new commitment calls for the first time for direct involvement of U.S. forces in patrols designed to capture or kill members of Abu Sayyaf, a militant Islamic group, in the jungles of Sulu province.

Officials said about 750 ground troops, including 350 Special Forces soldiers, would work with Philippine forces hunting members of Abu Sayyaf, which kidnapped two American missionaries in 2001. One of the missionaries was killed in a rescue attempt last June.

An additional 1,000 Marines would be stationed on two U.S. warships, prepared to serve as a "quick reaction force" capable of launching strikes aboard Cobra attack helicopters and Harrier attack planes. The ships' crews total about 1,200 sailors.

"It's active participation by U.S. forces in Philippine-led offensive operations," said a Defense Department official familiar with the plans.

Another Pentagon official said the objective was to "wipe out the Abu Sayyaf guys" and described the joint military plans as a "robust security package" hashed out over months of high-level negotiations.

U.S. military assessment teams could arrive in the Philippines within days, officials said, and combat operations could start next month.

The arrangement represents a diplomatic victory for the United States, which has for years conducted joint military exercises with the Philippines but has been blocked from having a long-term operational presence on the islands.

After Sept. 11, the Philippine government was among the first to seize on the new U.S. willingness to provide military assistance -- and tens of millions of dollars in aid -- to nations rooting out terrorist groups.

Last year, the U.S. sent about 500 Special Forces soldiers to advise and train Philippine forces fighting Abu Sayyaf. During the exercises on Basilan island, a small number of the U.S. troops were allowed to accompany Philippine troops on patrols cast as training missions. The Philippine government agreed that the U.S. troops could defend themselves if fired upon, but they were prohibited from initiating combat operations.

"Last year, we weren't actually participating in the fight," the Defense Department official said. "We were standing back providing advice and intelligence. In this case, it's active participation."

The Pentagon official said the new commitment involved a relatively small number of troops and would not strain U.S. military capabilities.

The deployment to the Philippines would tap U.S. forces already in the Pacific and would be headed by Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Weber, commander of the 3rd Marine Division in Okinawa, Japan. U.S. forces would remain under U.S. command. "However, all of their activities will be in direct support of the armed forces of the Philippines," the Defense Department official said.

The Special Forces troops would operate mainly on Jolo island in Sulu province, where Abu Sayyaf forces are believed to have fled after being flushed out of Muslim-dominated Mindanao and Basilan islands.

Abu Sayyaf was designated a terrorist organization by the State Department in 1997 and is believed to have received funding from the Al Qaeda network.

But there has been disagreement over how significant a threat Abu Sayyaf poses. Some have portrayed it as little more than a network of several hundred bandits operating in an area where there has been a centuries-old fight to establish a Muslim state. They are known for kidnapping for ransom.

Recently, the Philippine government has made new claims about Abu Sayyaf's activities and asserted a link between the group and an official at the Iraqi Embassy in Manila.

The official was expelled amid reports that the Philippines had evidence that he had received calls from figures in Abu Sayyaf. U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday that they could not confirm the account.

The two vessels being sent to the Philippines are the Essex, a large-deck helicopter carrier and amphibious assault ship, and the dock landing ship Fort McHenry, which carries helicopters and has "wet docks" from which small boats carrying Marines can be launched.

The Defense Department official said there was no deadline for the mission's completion.

"It will last as long as both sides are willing and agree it's necessary," he said. He added that there are no plans to send more troops later.

Of the 750 ground troops, 400 would be support personnel based in Zamboanga, headquarters of the Philippine military's southern command, Pentagon officials said.

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