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US Troops to Help Hunt Abu Sayyaf in Philippines - 2002-06-20

Washington says it will allow U.S. military advisors to go on patrol with Philippine troops hunting Abu Sayyaf rebels in the southern Philippines. The announcement, which would expand the U.S. soldiers' role in the fight against terrorism, has sparked a new round of controversy over the U.S. military presence in the Philippines.

The secretary-general for the Bayan nationalist alliance, Teddy Casino, who opposed the arrival of U.S. troops five months ago, says his group is holding a new round of demonstrations in the coming days.

"We are not surprised because as early as January we were of the belief that the purpose of the training was for the U.S. forces to be able to engage in joint combat operations with Filipino soldiers," he said. "We are worried though that this will most probably lead to an escalation of American involvement in Mindanao and in the Philippines."

Hundreds of U.S. soldiers have been sent to the southern Philippines to support nearly 200 special forces troops who are training and equipping Philippine troops fighting Abu Sayyaf rebels.

The group, which claims to be fighting for a separate Islamic state, has staged numerous high-profile kidnappings for ransom. Washington says the group has links to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

But Mr. Casino, whose group led the almost daily demonstrations at the U.S. embassy in Manila during the early part of this year, says he expected a scaling down of the U.S. involvement in the campaign against the rebels - but the reverse is occurring.

Critics say the U.S. presence violates the Philippine constitution, which prohibits military operations by foreign troops on Philippine soil. The Philippine government says the U.S. soldiers are on a legal training mission, which is due to end next month.

Nevertheless, Philippine House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Apolinario Lozada, who belongs to the governing party, says sending the U.S. troops out on patrol poses problems.

"We find a little difficulty with that because of certain regulations in our Constitution that may be violated," he said. "We are looking at it very, very closely. I think at this time they [U.S. soldiers] should just remain as advisers, actively participating in the planning and advising of our troops rather than actual combat. I think that's the most that we can really do now."

U.S. troops on Basilan Island came under fire for the first time earlier this week when unknown gunmen shot at a crew at a construction site.

Unidentified gunmen this week also kidnapped four sailors from an Indonesian tugboat sailing to the central Philippine port of Cebu. The sailors apparently were taken to nearby Jolo Island, another stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf.

One of sailors who escaped and was rescued Thursday identified one of his captors as a leader of the Abu Sayyaf. Philippine military officials would not confirm the report, saying they were still investigating.