The Philippines defense secretary says plans for a large scale U.S. military deployment in the southern Philippines may have to be altered.
Philippines Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes says both the United States and the Philippines will consider "other options" to the planned deployment of U.S. troops in the violence-plagued southern Sulu islands.
Defense officials are working out details on the nature, location and scope of the 10 month planned joint military operation.
The deployment, called Balikatan 3, was originally conceived as more joint anti-terrorism training exercises, similar to the ones held last year.
But controversy erupted in the Philippines last month, after Pentagon officials said more than 1,000 U.S. troops would participate in joint combat exercises with Philippine troops, to fight Abu Sayyaf Islamic militants on the Sulu islands.
Philippine opposition lawmakers and nationalists said this type of deployment would violate the Philippine constitution, which bans foreign troops from fighting on Philippine soil.
Returning to Manila from Washington, where he held consultations with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary Reyes said both countries are committed to holding the joint "Balikatan" exercises, but he says the concerns of the Philippine people will be taken into account.
"Both the Philippine government and the U.S. government on their respective militaries are committed to this staging of Balikatan 3," Mr. Reyes said. "However, it will be conducted in accordance with Republic of the Philippines' laws and sensitivities. The long-term objective is for the armed forces of the Philippines to have an enhanced and sustainable capability by itself to address the terrorist threat."
Secretary Reyes says further discussions between the United States and the Philippines will seek to clarify the exact nature of U.S. military involvement. He says the countries are "looking at the same thing, but defining it differently."
Several hundred U.S. troops are already in the Philippines, holding training exercises with Philippine troops near Manila, and on the southern island of Mindanao.
The U.S. State Department has labeled Abu Sayyaf a terrorist organization, saying the group has close ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida group.
Abu Sayyaf is one of several groups fighting to create an Islamic state in the area. While most Muslim leaders in the southern Philippines have sought to distance themselves from Abu Sayyaf, many Muslim leaders have also criticized any planned U.S. military presence on the Sulu islands. They say people on the islands are still bitter about fighting that took place there between U.S. troops and Muslims in the early part of the 20th century, while the Philippines was an American colony.