Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - An attempt by left-wing groups to force the suspension of a joint U.S.-Philippine counter-terrorism exercise has failed, with the Philippine Supreme Court dismissing the critics' petitions.
In a 10-3 decision, the justices ruled that the six-month operation on the southern island of Basilan was legal and fell within the framework of existing bilateral agreements.
The judges stipulated, however, that the U.S. forces may not engage in "an offensive war" on Philippine soil.
The operation began in February amid vociferous opposition from nationalist, left-wing and Muslim organizations and individuals, who claimed it impinged on the country's sovereignty.
Its aim is to train and advise Filipino soldiers who are trying to flush out a radical Islamic gang which has seized dozens of hostages, killing many of them, in recent years. Linked to Osama bin Laden, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) still holds an American missionary couple and a Filipina nurse, who were seized some 10 months ago.
The three captives were spotted for the first time in weeks Wednesday by villagers on Basilan island, the jungle-covered and mountainous ASG stronghold. Earlier it was speculated that the gang may have managed to escape the island with their hostages ahead of the advancing U.S.-accompanied forces.
More than 600 U.S. servicemen, including 160 Special Forces troops, are taking part in the mission. They are not permitted to use weapons except in self-defense.
But for critics of the operation, the entire thing was an unconstitutional sham thought up by President Gloria Arroyo, whom they accused of allowing the U.S. to pursue its anti-terror war under the guise of a joint exercise.
Washington has not hidden the fact that the mission, called "Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines," is part of the campaign against terrorism waged in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. "Enduring Freedom" is the name of the campaign in Afghanistan to destroy bin Laden's al Qaeda network and its sponsors, the Taliban.
Two lawyers petitioned the court, calling for the exercise to be stopped on the grounds bilateral defense agreements made no provision for U.S. forces to train Filipino troops "in a war zone area like the one in Basilan."
They said mutual military assistance was provided for in the case of an attack on the Philippines or the U.S. by a third country, and not in order to deal with a "purely domestic peace and order problem."
Two left-wing parties also asked the court to intervene to stop the operation, which they said was unconstitutional and should never have been approved by Arroyo.
In its 22-page decision the court said it was not in a position to rule on the allegations that the government was trying to fool the public about the true nature of the exercise.
It could not make a finding based on media reporting of the situation in the southern Philippines, as "the facts must be established in accordance with the rules of evidence."
"As a result, we cannot accept, in the absence of concrete proof, petitioners' allegation that the Arroyo government is engaged in doublespeak in trying to pass off as a mere training exercise an offensive effort by foreign troops on native soil."
The question of U.S. troops in the Philippines remains an emotional one ten years after large American bases were shut down after the country's Senate refused to renew their leases.
Since then, U.S. forces have participated in a number of joint maneuvers in the country. This is the first time, however, that they find themselves in a live enemy conflict situation.
See earlier stories:
Catholic Bishops Back U.S. Anti-Terror Deployment In Philippines (Jan. 29, 2002)
Political Row Erupts Over U.S. Troops In Philippines (Jan. 17, 2002)
E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.
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