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US Troops Begin Exercises with Philippine Soldiers

In the Philippines, U.S. troops are beginning military exercises with Philippine soldiers against Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, who have been linked to the al-Qaida terrorist group. Philippine officials are seeking to reassure their citizens that U.S. forces will be observers not combatants.

The joint military exercise formally began Tuesday. Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes says 650 U.S. troops, including 150 special forces, in the coming weeks are joining Philippine soldiers in Zamboanga and nearby Basilan Island, 1,000 kilometers south of Manila.

The defense chief says the purpose of the joint exercise is to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf and free a Philippine nurse and an American missionary couple taken hostage more than six months ago.

U.S. and Philippine troops have been conducting war games since 1999. But Secretary Reyes says this operation is different. "This is different from other exercises because the mission has changed. The threat to the world, the region, the threat to the Philippines has been and probably will continue to be terrorism. So to make the exercises more responsive and in tune with the times, the exercises are directed at combating international as well as domestic terrorism," Mr. Reyes said. U.S. officials link Abu Sayyaf to the al-Qaida group that is blamed for the September attacks in the United States. Following these attacks, the first U.S. military advisers visited the southern Philippines and Washington promised more military aid for what it views as part of the global war against terrorism.

Defense Secretary Reyes says, however, that the U.S. troops will not be allowed to engage in military offensives. "The guiding principle here is that combat operations will be conducted by Philippine troops. We don't expect, we don't want American forces to be directly involved in combat. They will only be armed for self-defense," Reyes said.

The U.S. military presence in the Philippines has been small since the closure more than a decade ago of U.S. bases in the country. The co-editor of the Asia-Pacific Security Outlook, Richard Baker, says the joint exercise not only represents an increase in military cooperation between the two countries, but it also launches a different mission. "Here, the specific focus is on the anti-terrorist campaign, which in itself is not surprising. But that does constitute a change in the orientation of the kinds of cooperation we've been practicing to date," Mr. Baker said.

The U.S. troops are to help upgrade communications of the Philippine military in the south. And they are to provide training on new, U.S. supplied equipment that includes helicopters, weapons and night vision tools.