Officials in the Philippines say U.S. military advisors are soon to visit the southern part of the country to help the army's fight against Islamist separatists, who are holding more than one dozen hostages. The announcement comes amid reports that terrorist groups in Southeast Asia may be targeted by future U.S military operations.
Philippine Armed Forces Chief of Staff Diomedio Villanueva Thursday announced about two dozen U.S. military advisers are to visit the southern island of Basilan to train and equip Philippine troops fighting rebels of the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group. General Villanueva added the U.S. advisors would be unarmed and would not actively participate in any operations.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Manila confirmed the visit, adding that it was planned before the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
U.S. officials have said the Abu Sayyaf group has links to the al-Qaida network headed by fugitive Saudi businessman Osama bin Laden. Philippine officials note the Abu Sayyaf's founder fought in Afghanistan, like many of those linked to al-Qaida.
Philippine presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said the government has evidence that in the early 1990s operatives of Mr. Bin Laden gave financing and explosives training to members of the Abu Sayyaf group.
But he said the government believes the relationship faded after the government extradited individuals linked to the first bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993. "In 1995, a cell we believe connected with the bin Laden group had been discovered here," he said. "In fact, one was repatriated to the United States and they were convicted on the basis of evidence. So after that haven't really detected any further activity of any al-Qaida groups here."
The Philippine government has expressed the strongest support in the region for the U.S. government's declared war against international terrorism. But officials say allowing foreign military operations on Philippine soil is against the Constitution.
The Malaysian government Thursday said it is seeking clarifications about an article in the New York Times newspaper that quotes U.S. officials as saying that Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia are among possible targets for future U.S. operations against international terrorism. Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said his government has provided information on two individuals who have been connected to the attack on the World Trade Center in New York last month. But he said it would be inappropriate for the U.S. government to act unilaterally or interfere in what was termed Malaysia's internal affairs.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell Wednesday responded to the newspaper report saying no immediate military action is planned in the these countries. But he added that the U.S. government will seek out terrorists wherever they are located.
The U.S. Ambassador to Singapore Thursday told news agencies U.S. military action in Southeast Asia is unlikely. The diplomat said any action in the region would most likely involve coordinating efforts to fight money laundering and sharing intelligence.