The Philippines and the United States have agreed to begin a controversial military exercise. The operation is aimed at eliminating the Abu Sayyaf group, which kidnapped a Philippine nurse and two American missionaries several months ago.
The U.S. and Philippine governments signed an agreement to allow more than 600 U.S. troops to equip and train Philippine soldiers trying to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf group. The gang is behind a 10 year spree of murder and kidnappings in the region.
The accord does not allow U.S. forces to participate in Philippine operations against other anti-government groups. And it does not allow the U.S. troops to operate independently.
Southern Command spokesman Danilo Servando told reporters that preparations for the troop deployment are going smoothly.
"We are about to finish the logistical requirements," said Col. Servando. "The American side's continuing with the force build-up and logistics build-up. And we are on schedule."
The American forces began arriving last month in Zamboanga, the headquarters of the Philippine military's southern command.
The joint exercise has faced opposition from some Philippine politicians, who say it violates a section of the constitution forbidding foreign troop operations on Philippine soil.
The Philippine Supreme Court has ordered the government to justify, by Friday, its position that the U.S. military presence does not violate the constitution.
Meanwhile, the Philippine military says its troops clashed with the Abu Sayyaf on Sibago Island, a few kilometers off the coast of Zamboanga, killing three guerrillas.
Colonel Servando said government troops also attacked Abu Sayyaf fighters in neighboring Sulu province as part of a separate operation.
"As of this morning the operation is still ongoing," he said, "and hopefully we can have a positive result anytime from now."
U.S. military officials say the American troops are to observe the Philippine forces in the field. They are then to return to base to help Philippine commanders develop new training programs. Philippine officials say the exercise could last six months or more.