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US Considering Expanding Role in Philippines - 2002-06-04

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he is still weighing proposals that could see American soldiers go out on actual anti-terrorist patrols in the southern Philippines. Mr. Rumsfeld indicates he may have some misgivings about the idea.

Mr. Rumsfeld says the presence of 160 U.S. advisors backed by 1,000 American military support personnel has apparently had a positive impact in improving security conditions in the southern Philippines.

But speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Mr. Rumsfeld indicated the Abu Sayyaf rebels long sought by Philippine authorities may have abandoned the area because of the U.S. presence. He suggests that is a disappointment, saying that "unless you get the terrorists, you have not improved the situation, ... and there has been very little of getting terrorists in the Philippines thus far."

Mr. Rumsfeld says he is weighing proposals to expand the U.S. role to see American troops actually go out on anti-terrorist sweeps with Philippine soldiers. Currently U.S. trainers are restricted to headquarters level activities.

The defense secretary concedes if American troops do go out on patrol, they could become targets, "and if they're targets, they could end up in combat."

Mr. Rumsfeld declines to say specifically why he has not yet approved a more active combat role for U.S. advisors in the Philippines. But he indicates he may have some misgivings.

"I need a greater comfort level that I understand what I am recommending to the president this country get involved in, in terms of people, in terms of dollars and in terms of potential benefit," said Mr. Rumsfeld.

The U.S. forces are currently scheduled to remain in the Philippines until the end of July, training Philippine troops hunting for the Abu Sayyaf rebels. The rebels, suspected of links to the al-Qaida terrorist network, are holding two American hostages.