Philippine and U.S. forces have formally launched joint military exercises to wipe out Muslim extremists linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.
Hundreds of Philippine and U.S. soldiers attended Thursday's ceremony in the southern city of Zamboanga.
Zamboanga, where the Southern Philippine Military Command is headquartered, is serving as the launching pad for operations against the Abu Sayyaf Muslim kidnappers. The city is near Basilan Island, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold where guerrillas have been holding a U.S. missionary couple and a Philippine nurse hostage for more than eight months.
The launch of the joint war games dubbed "Balikatan" or "sharing the burden" in the local Tagalog language opens a Southeast Asian theater to the war on terror. The United States has identified the Abu Sayyaf as one of the groups with ties to al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden's terrorist network whose members are being pursued by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
About 600 U.S. troops will take part in the six month-long exercises. About 160 U.S. special forces could eventually take part in training patrols in Basilan.
But U.S. military officials say the exercises will first involve classroom training of Philippine soldiers, including training in the use of night-vision goggles and night-fighting tactics.
The Manila government has stressed that the Americans will work principally as trainers and observers, not as combatants. Philippine Defense Minister Angelo Reyes Thursday sought to calm fears that Balikatan would be a U.S.-led operation that could potentially violate Philippine sovereignty laws. "First, Balikatan is a training exercise. Second, its principal purpose is to improve the skills of Filipino soldiers in combating terrorism. Third, it is not a transgression of Philippine sovereignty. In exercising with our American allies, we have zealously seen to it that our sovereignty is preserved. Our American allies understand and respect this," Mr. Reyes said.
The decision to allow U.S. troops to join in the hunt for the Abu Sayyaf has become a divisive political issue in the Philippines. The islands were under U.S. rule during the first half of the 20th century.