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Philippines: US Troops Deployed on Basilan Island - 2002-02-18

U.S. Special Forces spent their first full day Monday on Basilan Island, where they are to train Philippine troops pursuing guerrillas allegedly linked to the al-Qaida terrorist group.

Senior U.S. officers Monday met the governor of Basilan province, Wahab Akbar. After the meeting, Governor Wahab told VOA his government welcomes the U.S. troops and their exercise with Philippine forces, called "Balikatan," or shoulder-to-shoulder. "I am very happy with the coming of U.S. Special Forces," he said. "And we had several meetings with the mayors, and they are also happy and supportive of the Balikatan exercises we have in the province."

Governor Wahab said the government has received inquiries from the guerrillas about a possible surrender. "Last night, there was a feeler, [that] there are some Abu Sayyaf groups who want to surrender," said Wahab Akbar. "But, I said, you fight now. We cannot accept, because you are giving conditions and we do not want conditions. If they want to surrender, they will surrender, but without any conditions."

The government last year ordered the Philippine army to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf after a highly publicized kidnapping in May of several foreign tourists and more than a dozen Philippine workers from a resort. The guerrillas still hold two American missionaries and a Philippine nurse in the forests of Basilan.

One of the U.S. soldiers, Sergeant-Major Jim Brey, says the Green Berets will spend their first days in camp getting to know their Philippine counterparts. "We have to sit here for about a week, or so, and just get a feel for what's going on, before we can actually make any observations or recommendations," he said. "And, likewise, there's things they can assist us with."

The U.S. forces are to equip and train Philippine troops here with high-technology equipment, as they pursue Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, who say they are fighting for a Muslim state. For more than a decade, the guerrillas have terrorized residents with bomb attacks, kidnappings and beheadings. Philippine Army Major Salvador Calanoy says, however, the U.S. soldiers are not there to fight the Abu Sayyaf. "This has no relation with the terrorist organization, because this is training," he said. "So, this is simple 'Balikatan' training. This has been done ever since before the Abu Sayyaf existed."

Major Calanoy says the Philippine soldiers also plan to share jungle survival and guerrilla combat skills with their U.S. counterparts.