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Arroyo Visits Southern Philippines to Support Anti-terror Campaign - 2002-02-26

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo is visiting the southern Philippines to boost the battle against terrorism and show support for a U.S.-Philippine military exercise under way there. The presidential visit comes amid reports of a new clash with rebel guerrillas.

President Arroyo Tuesday told a packed auditorium in this regional capital that her government will continue to fight the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas until it neutralizes what she called "this evil group."

The Philippine president says terrorism has choked economic growth in the region, which is called Mindanao. And she added that the struggle against poverty was as important as the struggle against terrorism. "We'll always be together for peace and development in Zamboanga and Mindanao," Ms. Arroyo said. President Arroyo also praised the joint training exercise between U.S. and Philippine troops on nearby Basilan Island as a common effort that will make both forces stronger.

The presidential visit came as a new clash was reported on Basilan between Philippine troops and reported Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. No casualties were reported. One hundred sixty U.S. Green Berets are on the island providing training and sophisticated equipment to Philippine troops who are trying to eliminate the guerrillas.

The Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to the al-Qaida terrorist group, says it is fighting for an Islamic state in the region, but has mostly terrorized the local population through murder and kidnapping for ransom.

Some political groups in the Philippines oppose the exercise saying it violates a constitution. However, most residents of this part of Mindanao say they are tired of the violence and they support the U.S. mission. They say opponents of the exercises are mostly people in the northern part of the country who fail to understand their desperation.

In a related development, Philippine and American forces Tuesday held a memorial service for the 10 American soldiers who were killed Friday when their Chinook helicopter crashed into the sea off the coast of Negros Island. Three bodies have been recovered. The seven other soldiers are missing and presumed dead.