|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 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
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
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.
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
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.
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