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Philippine President to Meet with Bush, Saturday - 2003-05-16


Philippine President Gloria Arroyo travels to the United States Saturday for a state visit, one of only a handful hosted by President Bush since he took office. The visit comes as more warnings of terrorist threats have been issued in the region and the confrontation grows between the Philippine government and the country's largest Islamic guerrilla group.

President Arroyo is one of the Bush administration's staunchest allies in the war on terrorism. And during her visit, she stands to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid and business deals.

The trip comes a few days after the U.S. State Department warned of possible terrorist attacks on the island of Borneo, near the southern Philippines, because of new activity by the Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf terrorist groups.

The Philippine military last year disrupted Abu Sayyaf operations in the southern Philippines during six-month joint exercises with U.S. Special Forces. The U.S. government says similar exercises will go ahead later this year despite the threat of terrorism.

The Philippine government is also facing renewed attacks by the country's largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, in which some 200 people have been killed this year.

The Philippine government has given the group two weeks to cease hostilities or risk being classified as a terrorist organization. The MILF, which had been in peace negotiations with the government, says such a declaration will lead to all-out war.

A professor at the Australian Defense College, Carl Thayer, says the MILF is fragmented and it is not clear who is ordering the attacks.

"Whether it's centrally directed from a MILF leadership or whether it's factions that keep splintering off and can't be controlled, if the Arroyo government wants to have the MILF declared [terrorist], I think the U.S. government would be accommodating," he said. "And that would give greater cover to these training exercises that the U.S. runs with the Philippine armed forces."

Whether or not President Arroyo seeks to have the MILF placed on the international terrorism list, she is likely to obtain strong expressions of support from the Bush administration for her efforts against terrorism.

What is less certain is whether she will be able to attract new private investors, given fears about terrorism and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the flu-like disease that has shaken economies across Asia.

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