More U.S. Forces Land in Philippines
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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The number of American troops sent to the Philippines in the war against terrorism is rising to 1,200 with Saturday’s landing of Navy Seabees to build airstrips and carry out other construction projects.
Some 340 of the Navy engineers and their Marine security force started going ashore on the southern Basilan Island from the dock landing ship USS Germantown in early morning, only hours after their deployment was approved by the Philippine government.
The island is a base of the Abu Sayyaf rebels, who have been holding American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., hostage for more than 10 months.
In remarks to reporters Friday during a visit to Fort Lewis, Wash., Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said ``we have no current plans to expand″ the kind of work the U.S. military is doing in the Philippines to other countries in that region.
``They’ve requested, and we’ve agreed to provide, some joint training, where our forces are there working with them with respect to things like intelligence and logistics and communications and that type of thing,″ he said. ``It’s going quite well. It’ll have a beginning and an end.″
Referring to the Navy Seabees’ construction work, Rumsfeld said, ``We’re going to be doing that for a relatively brief period.″
The Seabees join 160 U.S. special forces working with Philippine troops on Basilan to advise them as they battle the rebels; 440 U.S. trainers and other support people for those advisers, staying in nearby Zamboanga; and a rarely publicized 225 to 300 logistic, aviation and intelligence personnel on the central Philippines island of Mactan near Cebu City.
The Germantown, based at Okinawa, Japan, had been waiting off Basilan for final Philippine government approval, given Friday.
Under a $3.9 million mission previously approved at the Pentagon, the Seabees and Philippine military engineers will build roads, dig wells and improve a causeway in the Muslim-dominated southern island, one of the Philippines’ poorest regions. The Philippine government has made development a top priority to allay some of the poverty that incubates extremist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf.
``This has no relation with the military training. This is only a civic action,″ Philippine national security adviser Roilo Golez told reporters after it was approved.
Americans were stressing the other side of the coin.
Although the infrastructure improvements will boost the local economy, U.S. officials said, they are being done not for that reason but rather to help American troops in their counterterror work on Basilan.
Because the American presence is politically sensitive in the former U.S. colony, Philippine officials have consistently played it down. They also describe the counterterror program as a military exercise, although Americans are advising, training and assisting them in what amounts to the combat zone of an existing conflict.
The U.S. counterterror aid also has provided weapons, boats and aircraft and is operating high-tech satellite and other intelligence equipment that Philippine forces had not had access to in the years they have battled the rebels.
Officials have said the U.S. advisers believe they are making progress. Contact between rebels and local armed forces _ battles, sightings and such _ have increased due to the improved intelligence, they say. The program’s opening ceremony was in January though advisers did not arrive until mid-February.
The Philippine action made Southeast Asia the second theater in the U.S. war on terrorism after Afghanistan. The Bush administration has said Abu Sayyaf is loosely linked or has been linked in the past to Saudi-born fugitive Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network.
Meanwhile, about 2,650 U.S. troops began arriving Friday for a joint three-week exercise in the northern Philippines to help Washington’s biggest Southeast Asian ally improve its defenses, its skills at peacekeeping and its ability to participate in U.N. peacekeeping missions.
While the counterterror program is scheduled to last until August, and officials are considering extending it, the unrelated exercise in the north is to start Monday and end May 6.
During that time, upward of 4,000 American troops will be in the Philippines.
Associated Press writer Oliver Teves contributed to this report from Zamboanga City, Philippines.
On the Net: U.S. Navy maps of Basilan: http://www.pacom.mil/imagery/archive/0202photos/basilanisland.html