Philippine officials say plans are under way to deploy more U.S. troops to exercises in the southern Philippines. The news comes amid reports that the U.S. government has been involved in talks to free American hostages held by the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf.
Philippine National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said the United States wants to send a team of military engineers to build public works projects on the impoverished island of Basilan. The island is the site of the joint military exercise being carried out by U.S. and Philippine troops. "From the looks of it, if it's exclusively for construction activity I don't see anything wrong with the principle because it is going to rebound to the economic benefit of Basilan," he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is considering intensifying the operations of the 660 U.S. troops in the Philippines. The Americans are training Philippine soldiers in the fight against the Abu Sayyaf group, which has been linked to the al-Qaida terror network.
Among the options Mr. Rumsfeld is said to be considering are extending the six-month mission, deploying more troops and bringing the soldiers closer to the combat zone. Under current arrangements, the U.S. soldiers are not allowed to fire except in self-defense.
Mr. Golez dismissed reports that the United States recently tried to ransom the Abu Sayyaf's two American hostages. "This does not jive with Philippine policy and the policies of the United States as expressed to me by Assistant Secretary of State Jim Kelly and as confirmed by the U.S. ambassador here," he said. "I see no reason to believe those reports."
The Abu Sayyaf abducted American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham from a resort in May last year.
The military exercises on Basilan are aimed at helping the Philippines eradicate the Abu Sayyaf and other local terrorist groups.
The United States maintained military bases in the Philippines until 1991. The arrival of hundreds of U.S. soldiers in the former American colony this year has drawn criticism from some Philippine groups.