USSF arrive to aid hunt for Abu Sayyaf**

1st Special Forces Group (Airborne)

 CNN January 10, 2002 Posted: 7:15 AM EST (1215 GMT)

The first group of U.S. military trainers arrived in the Philippines last month 

MANILA, Philippines -- A group of eight U.S. military officials has arrived in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga to begin a training mission targeted at the extremist Muslim group Abu Sayyaf.

 

The American officers, believed to be counter-terrorism experts, precede a group of about 100 U.S. troops expected to arrive in the region soon.

However, although the U.S. officers will be armed at present American and Philippine officials say there are no plans for them to take a direct combat role.

"They will be here to train, but not go to the front lines," Philippine armed forces chief General Diomedio Villanueva told reporters.

"This is to enhance the capability of our forces in fighting terrorism," he added.

Based at the Philippine military' southern command the U.S. officers plan to work with the Philippine military in a training program dubbed "Balanced Piston," which teaches jungle warfare and survival techniques.

MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- The Philippine government is considering a U.S. proposal to send a full military battalion to the Southeast Asian nation's troubled south. 

A confidential source said the U.S. military deployment could comprise "up to a thousand troops" who would set up a counter-terrorist training camp for Philippine soldiers in Sibuco, Zamboanga del Norte, some 500 miles (800 km) south of Manila. 

The arrival of U.S. troops would take place "in phases" starting this month, the source added. 

Armed Forces spokesman General Edilberto Adan confirmed the U.S. proposal but stressed the precise details of the deployment was "still tentative." 

"The plan has been tabled by the U.S.," Adan told CNN from the main Philippine military headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, where the matter was being discussed, "but nothing will be done without a mutual agreement with the Philippine government."

A military battalion basically comprises some 500 soldiers, with about 100 each in five companies -- three rifle units, one heavy equipment unit, and another unit based at headquarters. 

A battalion could include hundreds more soldiers "if artillery, armored, and special weapons complements are added," a Philippine army colonel said. 

The successive arrival and exit of U.S. troops in the Philippines in recent months has fueled speculation they may be allowed to participate directly in operations against guerrillas from the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf in the south.
 

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Bin Laden link

The ultimate goal of the program is to root out the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, who operate in the southern Philippines and took dozens of hostages last year, including an American couple.

The U.S. and Philippine militaries have worked together in the past on joint training exercises, but this U.S. initiative is the first one specifically directed at the Abu Sayyaf group.

Washington has linked the group to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, blamed by Washington for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Abu Sayyaf leaders say they are fighting for a separate Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines but government officials argue they are in fact little more than a brutal kidnap-for-ransom group.

Military aid

Meanwhile in a separate development the Philippine armed forces has announced plans to take delivery later this month of five UH-1H (Huey) helicopters as military surplus from the U.S.

The delivery will mark the latest stage of Washington's military assistance package to the Philippines.

Last year the army received 100 trucks and a C-130 cargo transport aircraft as part of the same program.

Officials say the U.S. government has earmarked more than $70 million for the Philippine military aid program this year in the wake of the September 11 attacks, up more than three times of the $22.1 million spent in 2001.

-- Journalist Cecilia Lazaro contributed to this report

Profile
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)

 

The smallest and most radical of the Islamic separatist groups operating in the southern Philippines. It is designated one of 29 Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the U.S. Government.

Some ASG members have studied or worked in the Middle East and developed ties to mujahidin while fighting and training in Afghanistan.

The group split from the Moro National Liberation Front --the largest remaining Philippine Islamist separatist group -- in 1991 under the leadership of Abdurajik Abubakar Janjalani, who was killed in a clash with Philippine police in December 1998.

The ASG is still working to fill a leadership void resulting from his death, although press reports place his younger brother, Khadafi Janjalani, as head of the group's operations in the Basilan Province.

In April 2001, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered "all-out war" on the Abu Sayyaf and the military attacked with artillery, infantry and helicopters.

Military officials told the Associated Press that the Abu Sayyaf regrouped in May 2001 as armed forces were called off to guard voting in 14 May midterm elections.

Activities
Uses bombs, assassinations, kidnappings, and extortion payments to promote an independent Islamic state in western Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, areas in the southern Philippines heavily populated by Muslims. Raided the town of Ipil in Mindanao in April 1995, the group's first large-scale action. Suspected of several small-scale bombings and kidnappings in 1999.

Strength
Unknown but believed to have about 200 fighters.

Location/Area of Operation
The ASG operates in the southern Philippines with members occasionally traveling to Manila.

External Aid
Probably receives support from Islamic extremists in the Middle East and South Asia.

 

The U.S. has put Abu Sayyaf on a list of terrorist groups with suspected links to the al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden.

Philippine officials, however, have repeatedly stressed that arriving U.S. troops would be limited to training an elite Philippine counter-terrorist force known as the Light Reaction Company.

The latest batch of 25 U.S. military trainers arrived Thursday in Zamboanga, about 530 miles (850 km) south of Manila, a week after eight officers arrived in city.

A training camp is being set up in Malagutay, just west of Zamboanga, where the Armed Forces Southern Command is based.

General Adan said barracks for U.S. military trainers will also be set up in Basilan Island, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold just off the coast of Zamboanga, where the military believes the hostages are being held.

The Armed Forces spokesman, however, stressed the barracks "will not be a separate camp but within a Philippine military camp."

Kidnappings

Tiahrt (R) with Philippine Armed Forces Chief of Staff Diomedio Villanueva (C) and Southern Command Chief Lt. Geb. Roy Cimatu in southern Zamboanga province
Tiahrt (R) with Philippine Armed Forces Chief of Staff Diomedio Villanueva (C) and Southern Command Chief Lt. Geb. Roy Cimatu in southern Zamboanga province  

The Burnham couple and the Filipino nurse are the last of scores of captives the Abu Sayyaf seized in four separate incidents beginning in May last year. More than a dozen hostages were beheaded, including American tourist Guillermo Sobero.

"There's a great deal of concern from the parents of the Burnhams that their children would perish," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, the Burnhams' home state.

Tiahrt paid a visit to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo last week to express the U.S. government's concern about the Abu Sayyaf hostages and to monitor the training of Philippine troops in the south.

The congressman's Manila visit follows talks on the hostage crisis held with Arroyo when she visited Washington in November.

Deadlines

Though the U.S. government has not set a deadline for the Philippine government to subdue Abu Sayyaf, Tiahrt said "there have been too many deadlines" set by the Philippine military last year which had not been met.

Tiahrt also downplayed the expected arrival of more U.S. troops in the Philippines in the coming weeks, saying they are part of a "long-term commitment against terrorism" that "goes beyond the Burnhams."

Should the Burnhams be rescued, counter-terrorist training for Philippine troops should continue, he said.

Tiahrt, a member of House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Defense, explained the long-term goal of both the U.S. and Philippine governments is "eliminating the fear of terrorism."

The U.S. government has pledged more than $70 million in military aid to the Philippines this year as part of its global counter-terrorist campaign, following the September 11 suicide attacks on New York and Washington.

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