Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A month ahead of the scheduled end to a U.S.-Philippine military exercise aimed at destroying a terrorist group holding American missionaries hostage, the two governments have agreed to move U.S. forces closer to the action, and they may even extend the operation.
The news has prompted renewed criticism from Filipino politicians and left-wing activists who have long harbored suspicions about U.S. military intentions in the country, a former American colony.
Four months into the anti-terror training exercise -- due to wrap up after June 30 -- there is no sign Christian missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham are any closer to being rescued by Filipino troops being trained and advised by U.S. special forces.
The key aims of the exercise are to rescue the Burnhams and a Filipina hostage, and to wipe out the gang holding them on the mountainous and densely-forested island stronghold of Basilan.
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is believed to have links with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network.
One hundred and sixty U.S. Special Forces, among a total of 1,000 American troops participating in the southern Philippine exercise, are based at Philippine Army headquarters on Basilan.
Until now they have not accompanied small units on combat patrols against the bandits.
The decision to move the U.S. troops into a situation of potential conflict was announced during a visit to Manila by U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
It came a day after Basilan Christians appealed to the Americans not to leave at the end of the exercise, for fear a lull in the violence would be broken once they withdrew.
After Wolfowitz held talks with President Gloria Arroyo, a Manila spokesman said they had agreed that the training would be intensified and U.S. forces would be deployed "closer to the action."
Both Wolfowitz and his Philippine hosts stressed this did not mean the American troops would actually participate in combat. Though armed for self-defense, the visitors are not permitted to fight on Philippine soil.
"We are not talking of sending in U.S. troops to do the job of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, but on improving its capability to do the job itself," Wolfowitz said.
He also said the U.S. was open to the idea of extending the exercise beyond the original deadline, adding that the decision would have to be made by both governments.
In an indication of Washington's thinking on the matter, Wolfowitz noted that President Bush has said the war against terrorism would be a long process.
"Whatever specific steps that we decide to do, or decide not to do, it is a mistake to focus too much on any one detail, or ... even [on] one small island."
Wolfowitz later flew to Basilan to visit the American troops.
Left-wing group Bayan Muna was among those criticizing the decision to increase the involvement of the American troops, saying it was a reflection of the "grand design" of both governments -- "the prolonged stay and stationing of U.S. troops in the country."
Bayan Muna has from the start of the joint maneuvers accused Manila of helping the U.S. to establish new military bases in the Philippines.
Highly-strategic U.S. bases there were shut down a decade ago after the Senate voted not to renew their leases.
Several lawmakers were also quoted Monday as voicing concern that an extension in the exercise could violate the joint agreement governing the operation, as well as the Constitution.
'Aura of peace'
Formed in the early 1990s, the ASG is estimated to have abducted as many as 500 people since 1992, and to have killed almost 50 of them, usually by beheading them.
Last week, the State Department offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the capture of five top ASG leaders.
The Burnhams were abducted from an island resort more than a year ago, along with a third American, California tourist Guillermo Sobero, and 17 Filipino hostages. Sobero was later murdered, along with some of the Filipinos.
Six days after the original strike, the ASG gang holed up in a Catholic school-hospital compound on Basilan, hostages in tow. After a lengthy standoff with troops and police, the gunmen managed to escape with most of the captives in circumstances which remain unclear -- and which some locals have attributed to alleged collusion between the ASG and soldiers.
During the siege in the town of Lamitan, at least four civilians and several more soldiers were killed, and the gunmen seized several new hostages, including nurse Deborah Yap, who is still being held with the Burnhams.
In a church service in Lamitan Sunday that marked the anniversary of the siege, a letter from residents was read out urging Manila to extend the presence of the U.S. troops on Basilan, which they said had contributed to a calming of the situation over the past four months.
"We are hoping that this aura of peace will continue, but we are uneasy with the thought that the Americans who are giving us moral and civic support will be leaving after their first stay of six months," said the letter.
It said residents were concerned that the departure of the visitors would return the situation to the status quo before their arrival.
The letter addressed to President Arroyo was signed by local parish priest Cirilo Nacorda, who was himself held hostage by the ASG for two months in 1994.
In an editorial, the Philippine Star daily said it was noteworthy that Nacorda chose to put the safety of his parishioners in the hands of foreign troops rather than Philippine soldiers.
"There wouldn't have been such a warm welcome for foreign troops in Basilan if the Philippine government had done a better job of protecting the populace of the strife-torn island-province," it said.
About 30 percent of Basilan's 330,000 people are reported to be Christians. The southern Philippine Mindanao region is predominantly Muslim, while the rest of the country is mostly Catholic.
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