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Basilan Residents Ambivalent About Philippine-American Anti-Terror Mission - 2003-03-19


A series of joint military exercises between Philippine and U.S. troops over the past year have had as their goal the routing of terrorist groups. One exercise targeted the al-Qaida-linked group Abu Sayyaf in its stronghold island of Basilan, which both militaries say resulted in the destruction of the Abu Sayyaf network. VOA's Heda Bayron visited Basilan in the southern Philippines and found residents with mixed feelings about what the joint mission did for their community.

Off the coast of Basilan Strait, the coastal town of Lamitan looks like a peaceful, bucolic place. In reality, it is a place constantly under the shadow of terror. In 2001, Abu Sayyaf rebels raided the town. They had with them more than 20 hostages, including three Americans, taken from a beach resort in the central Philippines. The siege killed several people and destroyed Lamitan's Catholic church.

Since then, the 54,000, religiously mixed Lamitan residents have been living in fear. The slightest rumor of Abu Sayyaf rebel sightings is enough to trigger panic.

The Abu Sayyaf is an Islamic separatist group. The United States links the group to the international terrorist network al-Qaida. The rebels have kidnapped and killed local teachers, church and farm workers.

More than 1,000 American soldiers came to the island last year as part of a six-month anti-terrorism exercise aimed at helping Philippine troops battle the Abu Sayyaf. At the end of that exercise in July, both militaries were convinced the enemy network was destroyed.

As part of the exercise, American military engineers and doctors built bridges and roads, and improved local health and water supply facilities. This helped rebuild Basilan's economy, which is one of the poorest in the Philippines. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo believes that poverty is one of the roots of terrorism in the area.

Lamitan's public hospital has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of American assistance. When VOA first visited the hospital last year, its emergency room was empty. Its two doctors were borrowing medicines from the local pharmacy. Sick patients faced the perilous 30 kilometer trek to the island's capital because the small hospital did not have diagnostic equipment. Today, the outpatient clinic is filled with mothers seeking treatment for their babies.

Dr. Julius Ceasar Aguila says more people are now coming to the hospital since the Americans helped renovate the building and donated medicines and important equipment such as X-ray machines, microscopes and electro-cardiogram machines."

On the outskirts of Lamitan, three new class rooms donated by U.S. troops will give a four classroom, 500 student public school more much needed room. Principal Biling Macdul says the new classrooms will give his students a better learning environment.

The kidnapping of teachers in other parts of Basilan had left his school with only three teachers, he says. And with only few classrooms available, teachers held classes in shifts and in the playground.

Village councilor Mukmin Halul says the presence of U.S. troops was beneficial. He says it lessened violence and allowed adults to work and children to go to school.

But despite pronouncements from both militaries that their mission had successfully destroyed Abu Sayyaf, many Basilenos feel it has been a security failure.

Lamitan has been on high alert over the past few weeks because of violence in other parts of the southern Philippines. Rumors are flying that hundreds of Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels are on the island after escaping intense fighting on the southern island of Mindanao. The MILF is another militant Islamic separatist group in the Philippines.

In the dirt road village of Balobo about five kilometers from central Lamitan, there is no military presence. The only protection comes from few civilian volunteers armed with home-made weapons and some old rifles.

When VOA visited Balobo, about 20 families had taken cover in the village school after reports that Abu Sayyaf and MILF rebels were amassing outside their village.

Georgina Rebollos said she and her children fled their home in fear of an attack. One of her sons escaped from an Abu Sayyaf attempted raid last year. Now she is afraid to go to work and has no money to feed her children.

Cory Espiritu, a village leader, says the Americans have not really done anything for the security of their village. Mrs. Espiritu said many Basilenos expected the American troops to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf and are disappointed it did not happen. She added that if the United States really wanted to help Basilan, U.S. troops should engage in combat to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf.

The U.S. troops have left Basilan but the American and Philippine military are contemplating a similar exercise in the violence plagued Mindanao.

The people of Basilan say they would welcome the Americans back to their island, and to the south, if once and for all the United States could help give them lasting peace.

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