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Philippine Court Orders Government to Justify US Troops - 2002-02-05

The Philippines Supreme Court is ordering the government to justify the presence of U.S. troops in a combat zone in the country's southern islands. The order is a boost for opponents of a anti-terrorism exercise involving Philippine and U.S. troops.

The supreme court has given the Philippine Government 10 days to justify the presence of the U.S. soldiers starting a six-month anti-terrorism exercise with Philippine troops.

The court was responding to a petition filed last week by two lawyers, who argue the presence of the Americans in an area where the Philippine military is hunting a rebel group violates the Philippine constitution. It is a view shared by many opposition politicians and private agencies.

Still, the court's order falls short of the hopes of the plaintiffs. Arthur Lim, one of the lawyers filing the suit, said he asked the court to issue a restraining order to halt the U.S. troop deployment. He explains his opposition to the exercise.

"We are really saying that, in the absence of a treaty allowing the use of American combat troops in the Philippines, especially in a purely domestic problem, no matter how beleaguered our Filipino soldiers are, this can not be done. Because, first it will violate the constitution and, secondly, it will eliminate or obliterate whatever self-respect, if any remains, among us as a people," he said.

About 600 U.S. troops are to take part in the six-month exercise. Some 160 special forces soldiers would patrol with Philippine troops on Basilan Island, where the Philippine Army has been hunting the rebel Abu Sayyaf gang for about two years.

The Abu Sayyaf says it is fighting for a Muslim homeland, but it is known for kidnappings and brutal killings. It holds two Americans and a Philippine nurse among its hostages.

The U.S. troops are to be armed when they are on patrol, but would be allowed to shoot only if they are attacked.