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Philippine, US Officials Negotiate Details of Proposed Military Exercises - 2003-03-21

Philippine and U.S. defense officials are negotiating the details of proposed large military exercises aimed at helping fight terrorist activities in the Philippines. The exercises come as the Philippine military is renewing its offensive against Muslim separatist rebels in the south after the collapse of a cease-fire. The government wants the exercises moved to the frontlines of the war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which Manila may label a terrorist group.

The exercise called Balikatan, or shouldering together, was initially meant to be a follow-up to last year's anti-terror training mission aimed at the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf.

Last year's exercise was credited with helping the Philippine army destroy the Abu Sayyaf network on the island of Basilan. The Muslim separatist group has since been on the run.

That success, the Philippine military says, can be replicated in the case of another Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF.

The military is again at war with the MILF after an almost two-year cease-fire. Now the government wants to bring the joint anti-terrorism exercises to the southern province of North Cotabato, an MILF stronghold. Some officials say the exercises would help get rid of the terror threat from the MILF. The military asserts the MILF has links to the regional terrorist network, Jemaah Islamiyah, which seeks to establish an Islamic state in Southeast Asia.

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes says evidence found in an MILF headquarters in 2000 shows the group was training Islamic militants from neighboring Asian countries.

"They were grooming that as a training center for JI for the entire region," he said.

Secretary Reyes says a military offensive now underway is meant to prevent the MILF from training more militants.

The government has threatened to put the MILF on the international terrorist list because of its alleged bombing activities throughout the south. The MILF has been fighting for a separate Muslim state in the south for more than 30 years. If the group were tagged as terrorists, it would become a target of the U.S.-led international war on terrorism. Political observers say this would bolster the government's plan to hold the joint anti-terrorism exercises in the area.

A combat role for foreign troops is banned under the Philippine Constitution. With fighting between the MILF and the military raging in North Cotabato, some local leaders are concerned that having the exercises there would be tantamount to inviting U.S. soldiers into combat.

"If the United States forces will be there in the area, and if, by accident, U.S. forces will be hurt, or will be killed, it would even complicate the matter," said Abhoud Syed Lingga,s head of the Muslim civil society group, Bangsamoro People's Consultative Assembly. "The best way [is] for the United States forces to keep out for the meantime. We would appreciate [the] United States coming in if there is no more fighting so that it could help us rebuild and rehabilitate our own people."

Governor Parouk Hussin says the exercises may be better off in areas where there is not fighting. "We don't mind if this held in any part of the Philippines especially in areas where there's no armed elements," he said.

But some leaders in the southern Philippines welcome a combat role for American soldiers if it eliminates terror threats.

Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte says he had opposed proposals for a combat role for U.S. troops in the Philippines. But after the deadly bombing in his city earlier this month by a suspected MILF suicide bomber, Mr. Duterte has changed his mind.

"We just have to bite the bullet and let them [Americans] do their thing," he said.

The MILF says that it does not consider the United States an enemy. But it warns that U.S. forces may be drawn into combat if they operate in the area.