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Philippine Senate Questions US Troop Deployment

The Philippine Senate is debating the legality of the growing U.S. troop deployment in the country's troubled south. As the hearings opened Thursday, more American soldiers arrived as part of a six-month counter-terrorism training mission with Philippine forces.

Senators began televised hearings Thursday on whether the Constitution permits U.S. forces to engage in the current joint training exercises gearing up in the south.

Senator Rodolfo Biazon, a former armed forces chief, got right to the heart of the matter. "I wanted a clarification of what we have here. Is it a purely training exercise? If it is, then there is no question. … However, if this is going to involve putting American soldiers in a situation where they may be involved in direct combat … then that is another matter," Mr. Biazon said.

National Security Adviser Roilo Golez says the maneuvers are allowed under the bilateral visiting forces agreement. And he and other senior officials have offered repeated assurances that the U.S. military will not engage in prohibited combat and will only be allowed to shoot in self-defense.

But some lawmakers are concerned because this year's annual U.S.-Philippine military exercises will be taking place in a conflict zone. Senator Biazon said "This situation is a drastic departure from the manner of joint military exercises conducted in the past. … Here the training exercises are being held in a conflict area where combat is definitely not only probable, but with certainty is going to be there." The troops will be operating in Zamboanga and surrounding areas, where Philippine forces are fighting Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebels. Senator Biazon questioned whether this could escalate the U.S. military's role in the country. "We have a new ball game here and there are no rules. And I am asking caution from everyone because this joint activity … in eradicating the Abu Sayyaf … is probably now a part of the evolution of those rules," Senator Biazon said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Air Force planes ferried about 20 soldiers to Zamboanga, bringing the total force to about 80.

Ultimately, more than 600 Americans will take part in the exercise. During the next six months, they will train with Philippine troops to upgrade their counter-terrorism capability against such groups as the Abu Sayyaf.

That organization claims to be fighting for an Islamic state in the southern Philippines but is best known for kidnappings, beheadings and brutal raids. It holds at least three hostages, a Filipino nurse and two Americans.

U.S. officials have linked the Abu Sayyaf to the al-Qaida terrorist network, the current target of U.S. operations in Afghanistan.