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U.S. Troops Arrive in Philippines

April 20, 2002

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FUEGO FUEGO BEACH, Philippines (AP) _ Hundreds of U.S. military engineers landed on a southern Philippine island Saturday to build roads, airstrips and improved ports to aid an American-backed offensive against Muslim extremists.

Bringing bulldozers and heavy equipment, 340 Marine engineers and Navy Seabees from the Naval Construction Task Group based in Okinawa, Japan, landed at Fuego Fuego Beach, adjacent to a Philippine army camp on Basilan island, a day after getting Manila’s approval for the additional forces.

They were brought ashore by landing craft from the USS Germantown, anchored near the mouth of a channel off Basilan.

U.S. officials said the troops will, among other things, build roads, helicopter landing zones and clear an unused air strip for the 160 U.S. Special Forces soldiers training Filipino troops fight the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group.

The Special Forces are part of a 660-strong U.S. military contingent involved in ``Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines,″ an expansion of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

``Our mission here is to train, advise and assist the Philippine military to beat terrorism in the southern Philippines,″ said Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, commander of the U.S. forces.

``We need ... to improve their ability to move, to arrive at places where terrorists will be conducting their action, and to be able to reinforce their forces when they attack,″ he said, adding that the Americans also are providing communications and intelligence help.

Marine Lt. Col. Brian Hearnsberger, commander of the construction task group, said his forces may need about 60 days to finish their work. But he added that he wants some flexibility.

Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu, head of the Philippine military’s Southern Command, and Basilan Gov. Wahab Akbar were among local officials welcoming the new forces.

Akbar climbed up the first bulldozer and shook hand with the driver, Marine Staff Sgt. Shawn Taylor.

``You’re very, very welcome,″ Akbar said.

Philippine officials, worried about the political backlash of an increased U.S. military presence, has insisted the arrival of the new troops is only for civic projects. The Philippine government has made development in the Muslim-dominated south a top priority, saying the wrenching poverty in the area incubates extremists like the Abu Sayyaf.

The Abu Sayyaf have held missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan. for more than 10 months on Basilan. They and a Philippine nurse are the last hostages from a rebel kidnapping spree that began last May.

The deployment means that U.S. troop strength in the Philippines will reach nearly 4,000 for the next three weeks. Some 2,700 Americans began arriving Friday for a joint exercise in the northern Philippines to help the country improve its defenses and ability to participate in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

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