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US, Philippines to Hold Counter-Terrorism Exercises - 2002-07-09

U.S. troops and Philippine soldiers will conduct new training exercises in another restive province in the southern Philippines. Philippine President Gloria Arroyo said U.S. trainers will be deployed to the predominantly Muslim province of Sulu.

President Gloria Arroyo told reporters Monday the next phase of counter-terrorism exercises by U.S. and Philippine troops will again include the southern Philippines.

The new exercises will be in Sulu province. At least two Muslim armed groups are known to operate in Sulu, including the extremist Abu Sayyaf, which Washington has linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Currently, U.S. and Philippine soldiers are training together in Basilan province, also in the south. Parouk Hussin, governor of the Muslim autonomous region in the southern Philippines, said the new exercises will benefit the province.

"The area is still infested with criminal elements, there are kidnap, for-ransom groups, the Abu Sayyaf is still very much active in the area. The idea of the exercise is of course to improve the capability of our law enforcement agencies to deal with the situation," Mr. Parouk said.

But some Muslim leaders warn that the deployment could trigger memories of American campaigns in Sulu early in the last century, when many Muslims died resisting U.S. colonial rule.

Mr. Parouk said he expects some opposition from the community.

"There might be some opposition but I'm not worried really. This is for the interest of everyone. Anyway, this is not engaging in actual combat," Mr. Parouk said.

Sulu has been a battleground for government troops fighting separatist rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The group signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, but continues to operate camps in the area. Mr. Parouk said the MNLF has, so far, expressed no opposition to the exercise.

President Arroyo said the bulk of future exercises will be staged on the northern island of Luzon, where Philippine soldiers have been battling communist insurgents for more than three decades.

Ms. Arroyo said the new exercise, which starts in October, will focus on upgrading the capability of the Philippine Air Force pilots.

Some 1,000 American soldiers are training with their Philippine counterparts in counter-terrorism methods on Basilan island. The current deployment ends on July 31.