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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 3, 2009
US storms troops into the Philippines
By Al Labita

MANILA - The arrival of about 3,000 US Marines in the Philippines next week for training and humanitarian missions in the wake of recent floods has some Filipino officials wary that the soldiers could be diverted to war-torn Sulu island, where Islamic extremists recently killed two US soldiers. The scheduled deployment represents five times the number of US troops currently stationed in the Philippines.

The US deaths have sparked fears that Washington aims to ramp up its presence and retaliate against suspected Abu Sayyaf rebels, whom the US and European Union have identified as an international terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda. Those concerns have renewed calls among legislators to either scrap or renegotiate the terms of the Philippines-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

The VFA, which took effect in 1999 after Manila shut down the US

 

military bases of Subic and Clark in 1991, allows US troops to hold joint military exercises with their Filipino counterparts. The deal, however, bars US troops from engaging in combat and any support is limited to providing logistical assistance, technical advice and intelligence to Manila's counter-terrorism operations.

Despite the VFA's legal restrictions, reports persist that US troops are "embedded" in Philippine military units in far-flung combat zones and that they had joined the fight against Muslim insurgents in Sulu and Basilan provinces. Some 600 US soldiers are currently stationed in the Philippines, the bulk of them on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

Two US soldiers were killed on September 29 when their Humvee vehicle hit a roadside bomb, believed to be an improvised explosive device, in Sulu's Indanan town, scene of previous bloody encounters and a known stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf. A Filipino marine was also killed and three Filipino soldiers were wounded.

The deaths are believed to be the first since a US soldier was killed in 2002 when a motorcycle laden with bombs exploded near a restaurant in Zamboanga city, 1,000 kilometers south of Manila. That incident represented the first US casualty since the VFA was signed in 1998.

The Abu Sayyaf, which has become notorious for kidnap-for-ransom incidents and beheading its victims, including one American businessman, was founded in the early 1990s by a group of young Filipino Muslim radicals after fighting as mujahideen in the Afghanistan war against the former Soviet Union in the 1980s.

It is believed to currently have about 400 fighters under arms, drawn mainly from the Tausog and Yakan tribes in Sulu and Basilan, respectively. The Philippine military has reported that Abu Sayyaf rebels have lately acquired expertise in bomb-making from suspected Indonesian terrorists who fled to Mindanao and sought refuge in Abu Sayyaf camps.

The rebel group has also recently started to use rocket-propelled grenades, which, the military said, came from foreign sources, including Vietnam. Despite reports of setbacks, Abu Sayyaf is far from being defeated because new, young and radical Muslim recruits are believed to have taken over from leaders killed in recent skirmishes with the military.

On September 14, suspected rebels lobbed a grenade at US troops who were unloading supplies at a pier in Jolo, Sulu's provincial capital. The attack motivated US soldiers to fire their weapons in the direction of the attackers near a mosque, drawing condemnation from Muslim residents. No one was killed or injured in the exchange.

Diplomatic denials
The US Embassy in Manila on September 30 denied reports that US security forces had engaged in combat in Sulu, claiming that they only conducted activities such as training exercises, professional exchanges and civic-action projects with the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Amid allegations that US troops had overstayed their usefulness, US ambassador Kristie Kenney said in a statement they were "temporarily deployed at the invitation of the government of the Philippines". United States servicemen are attached to the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines. Referring to the two recently killed US soldiers, Kenney said, "They lost their lives serving others and we will always be grateful for their contributions to improve the quality of life [in Sulu]."

The Philippine military said that the two slain US soldiers - identified by police as Staff Sergeant Jack Martin and Sergeant First Class Christopher Shaw - were "non-combatants" overseeing the construction of a US-funded school building, road and water system projects in Sulu. They were reputedly part of the US Navy's construction battalion, known as the "Seabees".

In the Philippine Senate, some lawmakers said the incident should prompt President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's government to renegotiate or abrogate the VFA. "Why are the Americans in a conflict area, in a battle zone where there are land mines?," asked Senator Miriam Santiago, chair of the senate's foreign relations committee. This "absolutely" proved that US troops were involved in operations against insurgents, she told reporters.

Santiago also raised suspicions about the timing of the US marines' arrival, arguing it was no coincidence that they are scheduled to alight just days after the two US soldiers were killed in Sulu. "What I'm worried about is that they might go to Mindanao afterwards ... Are they being sent here in the Philippines to help beef up 600 troops in Mindanao so that they can retaliate against the so-called terrorists in that area?" Santiago asked.

Philippine defense officials countered that joint military exercises with US troops had long been planned and that their US counterparts would bring in heavy equipment such as bulldozers and forklifts from Okinawa, Japan, to help clean up Metro Manila and outlying areas of debris caused by recent devastating floods, recorded as the worst in 42 years. The US contingent would include 30 to 40 medical missions to attend to thousands of evacuees, they said.

Opposition Senator Rodolfo Biazon, a former military chief, said that while he welcomed the Americans' humanitarian gesture, they should still pull out their troops from Mindanao's combat-prone areas, particularly the predominantly Muslim Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Cotabato provinces. "The worst fear is a potential situation where US troops, while in the act of self-defense, may kill a Filipino, whether he is a terrorist or not," he said in a statement.

Other opposition legislators also doubted the need for US troops to stay on in Mindanao, the country's second-largest island after Luzon. "The US military presence in Mindanao is aimed at protecting America's strategic interests. Let us not fool ourselves into believing that they are there for us," Senator Francis Escudero said.

He said it was "disturbing" to note the rising casualties among Philippine troops in recent clashes with the Abu Sayyaf, despite the training and technical assistance given by US military experts.
"The unfortunate deaths of 32 Filipino marines in recent clashes with the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf indicates there is a weakness in our capability that needs to be addressed, with or without US military assistance," Escudero said. "In renegotiating the VFA, we must make sure that our own interests are upheld. To do otherwise is betrayal of the highest order," he added in a statement.

He noted that while the Philippines had received US$429.9 million per year in US military assistance since the VFA's signing, the amount was much lower compared to that received by other US allies.

Like other pro-administration legislators, senate president Juan Ponce Enrile favors retaining the VFA, saying the Philippines needed US help in combating the scourge of terrorism. "We must accept the fact that we are a weak country. We do not have the means to defend ourselves. We need friends," he said.

Enrile, defense secretary during late president Ferdinand Marcos' rule, however said that he would lead a move to scuttle the VFA if US troops were found engaged in actual combat and suffered casualties in the battlefields of Mindanao.

Al Labita has worked as a journalist for over 30 years, including as a regional bureau chief and foreign editor for the Philippine News Agency. He has worked as a Manila correspondent for several major local publications and wire agencies in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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