Philippine officials have denied a report that U.S. troops, to be deployed in the country for a 10-month counter-terrorism exercise, would take part in combat against Muslim separatist rebels. The story out of Washington, quoting unnamed Pentagon officials, said American troops due in the Philippines next month would be authorized to engage in combat.
The Philippine government was quick to deny the report. Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the Americans were coming for joint counter-terrorism exercises with the Philippine Army, and would only be involved in training and humanitarian operations.
Allowing foreign troops, American or any other, to engage in combat on Philippine soil would be highly contentious among Philippine citizens, and possibly a violation of the Philippine constitution. It would also mark a significant escalation of direct American participation in the international war on terrorism.
The 10-month-long training exercise is due to start next month after the details are finalized.
On Thursday, an advance team of American Special Forces arrived in the southern city of Zamboanga. The mission is targeted at the Muslim separatist group called Abu Sayyaf - a group which Washington says has links to al-Qaida.
The training is due to take place on the remote southern island of Sulu, but opposition to staging the mission there is mounting. Abu Sayyaf is active on the island, and Philippine politicians fear this greatly increases the chances that the Americans would find themselves in a firefight.
Apolinario Lozada, chairman of the Philippine House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told VOA he is against any combat role by foreign troops. "That would be interference in the internal affair of the Philippines," he said. "We have to look very closely at the provisions of our Constitution to find out the kind of violations that would be done if the American forces would be engaged in active fight against the Abu Sayyaf."
Congressman Lozada said the proposal could spark new unrest in the already restive, Muslim-dominated south. Thursday, suspected Muslim militants exploded two bombs and raided a village on the island of Mindanao, killing at least 16 people. "If the Americans will push harder for that, I'm afraid that we will not really be able to accomplish the aim of the exercises in the south. I think it's just like lighting a cloth soaked in gasoline and it's going to spread out all over Mindanao," he said.
Last year, some 1,000 U.S. soldiers participated in a similar training mission. At the end of that mission, the participants declared that they had defeated Abu Sayyaf, but the Philippine military recently admitted that remnants of the group continue to operate on Sulu.