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US, Philippine Officials Give Different Account on Joint Military Operations - 2003-02-21

U.S. and Philippine officials differ over whether there is an agreement to conduct joint anti-terrorist operations in the Philippines starting next month.

Philippine officials have been quick to deny there will be any joint combat operations, saying there will be only U.S. military involvement in training and humanitarian projects starting next month.

But Pentagon officials are sticking to what they have said previously: There will be a joint effort to disrupt and defeat the Abu Sayyaf Muslim separatist group in the Sulu archipelago in the southern Philippines.

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

A U.S. Navy amphibious ready-group with some 1,000 Marines will be stationed offshore, and could join the operation with ground units as well as aviation support.

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 plans for 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.

News reports from the Philippines indicate concerns that direct U.S. participation in combat could violate provisions of the country's constitution.

But defense officials say it is their understanding that the Philippines constitution bars unilateral operations by foreign troops, which, they say, is not the case in the planned joint anti-terrorist sweep.