Thursday, May 30, 2002

U.S. may take bigger
role in Philippines

The Pentagon may get U.S.
troops more involved in the
search for missing Americans

Associated Press

WASHINGTON >> Muslim extremists holding an American couple hostage in the Philippines stand to come under increased pressure from U.S. military forces.

The Pentagon is debating a recommendation by its Pacific commander to move U.S. military advisers already in the Philippines closer to the search for the couple, defense officials said yesterday on condition of anonymity.

At the same time, the U.S. government also is offering a reward of up to $5 million for help capturing leaders of Abu Sayyaf, the group that has held Kansas missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham for a year.

"We look at that as a big boost and a big complement to our program," Philippine national security adviser Roilo Golez said of the reward announced yesterday.

Both moves come as the clock ticks down on the Defense Department's six-month deployment to help the Asian ally fight terrorism on its soil.

Some 1,200 Americans are scheduled to be in the Philippines until July 31 to train and advise local forces fighting Abu Sayyaf, which is loosely linked to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. The Americans include 160 military advisers, intelligence and logistical support and some 300 Navy Seabees -- engineers there to improve military infrastructure.

But since their arrival in mid-February on the rebels' southern island base of Basilan, U.S. advisers have been confined to battalion training -- that is, they work at the Philippine military headquarters on the island and remain behind when Filipino troops go out to hunt the enemy.

Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, has recommended Americans be allowed to go with patrols and give on-the-spot advice as Filipino troops pursue the rebels, officials said.

Though the Special Forces advisers are prohibited from engaging in combat, U.S. medics have entered combat zones at least three times in recent months to retrieve and treat Filipino wounded.

Accompanying local troops as they scour Basilan's jungles could put Americans in greater danger, obviously, and Congress asked months ago to be notified if the Pentagon wanted to do that. Defense officials said they would give notification.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is considering the idea and was expected to talk with Fargo this week about the recommendation, officials said. Also, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz began an Asian trip last night that includes a weekend visit to the Philippines.

The Philippine government is expected to approve the idea, Pentagon officials said.

Another question is whether the American training program should be extended beyond the sixth months agreed to by the two governments.

Officials have said they believe the American trainers, and sophisticated equipment they brought with them, have raised Filipino troop morale and resulted in the killing and surrender of some rebels.

But the effort has not completely destroyed the group nor accomplished perhaps the biggest unspoken goal of the U.S. deployment: winning freedom for the Burnhams.

A Muslim rebel leader said today that he would release his last remaining Filipino hostage, but he did not mention the Burnhams.

Abu Sabaya, a leader of Abu Sayyaf, said in an interview with RMN Radio that he will release Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap "any moment."

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