More than 5,000 troops from the United States and the Philippines are gearing up for Monday's start of almost two weeks of joint military exercises in the northern Philippines. Over 300 additional U.S. troops arrived in the southern Philippine Saturday to speed up the pursuit of a Muslim rebel group, the Abu Sayyaf.

The two week-long joint military exercises known as Balikatan 2002 bring together move than 5,000 troops from the United States and the Philippines.

The arrival of the 2,700 U.S. military troops for the exercise brings to nearly 4,000 the number of U.S. troops in the Philippines over the next three weeks.

Philippine Army spokesman Col. Jose Mabanta says the aim of the exercises is to improve the Philippine Army's combat readiness. "The main thing really is for the Balikatan exercise to improve the Philippines and U.S. forces combat readiness in joint and combined operations," he said, "as well as the two countries inter-operability through the training exchange of skills and techniques in both conventional and non-conventional warfare."

Col. Mabanta said the training will include humanitarian exercises to ready Philippine troops for U.N. peacekeeping operations.

Meanwhile, 340 U.S. military engineers were deployed on the southern Philippine island of Basilan over the weekend. U.S. officials said the engineers will be building roads, airstrips and port improvements to assist in the offensive against the Abu Sayyaf, the al Qaida linked Muslim rebel group.

Currently, there are 160 U.S. special forces training Filipino troops in the pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf rebels in the southern Philippines. The group is still holding, after ten months, a U.S. couple and a Filipina nurse in the jungles of Basilan. The special forces are part of a 660-member U.S. military contingent taking part in the so-called Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines.

Col. Mabanta says the infrastructure work will also provide a much needed economic boost to Basilan province. "The figures for the engineering forces, their works will be $4 million," he observed. "This will really be a big boost to Basilan which is considered one of the poorest areas in the country."

Philippine weekend media reported that, despite sporadic demonstrations, surveys show overwhelming support in the Philippines for the deployment of U.S. troops, backing President Gloria Arroyo's decision to ask for the U.S. presence in the fight against the Abu Sayyaf.