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US, Philippine Troops to Conduct Joint Operation Against Abu Sayyaf - 2003-02-20

U.S. and Philippine troops soon plan to conduct a joint anti-terrorist operation aimed at destroying the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group.

Pentagon officials say the operation could begin as early as next month in the Sulu archipelago, in the southern Philippines.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say some 350 U.S. Special Operations forces will be inserted into the area to assist Philippine soldiers, who will lead the anti-terrorist assault. An additional 400 American military personnel will provide support from Zamboanga.

A U.S. Navy amphibious ready-group with some 2,000 Marines will be stationed offshore, and could join the operation, providing additional ground units, as well as aviation support.

The officials say the effort is intended to "disrupt and defeat" the Abu Sayyaf group, which has been linked by the Bush administration to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

The officials say the U.S. forces are likely to start moving into position in the next few days.

This marks the first time the Pentagon has acknowledged direct U.S. combat participation in an anti-terrorist operation in the Philippines.

Last year, U.S. forces acted as advisors to Philippine anti-terrorist efforts on Basilan Island. But the American mission was considered part of a training program for Philippine troops.