Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo Monday appointed Lieutenant General Roy Cimatu, commander of the counter-terrorism campaign in the south, as new armed forces chief of staff.
The 55-year-old General Cimatu was chosen over three more senior generals, a move observers say may cause controversy within the divided military. Mrs. Arroyo defended her decision during a weekly radio broadcast, calling General Cimatu "chief of staff material." She said he was a popular choice among mid-level and senior officers.
General Cimatu has been overseeing the military counter-terrorism campaign in the southern Philippine island of Basilan and nearby Zamboanga city. The three-star general heads the offensive against the Muslim separatist group, the Abu Sayyaf, which Washington has linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network. The Abu Sayyaf has been holding a U.S. missionary couple and a Philippines nurse hostage for 11 months.
General Cimatu was appointed to the Southern Command last year after several military officers were accused of taking bribes from the Abu Sayyaf.
He became famous for flying in fresh tuna by helicopter to supplement the poorly paid Philippine foot soldiers' diet of canned sardines during a major offensive against the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front that led to the fall of over 30 of its camps. The group is now holding talks with the government.
Mrs. Arroyo has been careful to curry favor with the restive military since she took office last year after several top ranking officers withdrew their support from former president Joseph Estrada. That, combined with popular street protests over Mr. Estrada's alleged corruption, led to his downfall.