Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Monday, 2 April 2007 12:51 UK

US helps fight against Abu Sayyaf

By Nick Meo
in Jolo, the Philippines

US marine on Jolo - archive picture
After Iraq, the southern Philippines might seem like paradise

Except for Humvees on the beach and armed guards, the US Navy Seals base in Jolo island in the southern Philippines looks more like a hang-out for surf bums than a military base for an elite anti-terrorist task force.

A few yards from the detachment's temporary home in a mansion surrounded by blast barriers and coconut palms, the surf pounds on a powder-sand shore with jungle-covered mountains behind.

A nicer backwater of the war on terror could not be imagined.

Just a few miles away are the dwindling but still dangerous remnants of one of Asia's most ruthless Muslim militant groups, Abu Sayyaf.

With leaders trained in Afghanistan and pledged to ignite jihad in South East Asia, the group has been blamed by the Manila government for killing hundreds of Philippines citizens in bomb attacks and other violence.

Map showing Jolo island

In 2001 the group kidnapped three Americans, beheading one. A US missionary died in a botched rescue attempt the next year. In 2004 the group was blamed for a ferry bombing in which 100 passengers died.

The Philippines military says international terrorists are still hiding with Abu Sayyaf, including two men suspected of involvement in the 2002 Bali bombings.

At that time, Abu Sayyaf were making millions of dollars from kidnapping and virtually ran the Sulu archipelago, which for decades has been a lawless, impoverished region notorious for pirates and Muslim rebels.

Now the revitalised Philippines security forces estimate there are only about 200 Abu Sayyaf fighters left in the jungles of Jolo.

Hearts and minds

The US Special Forces teams, Seals and soldiers who have been based on Jolo since 2002 are strictly forbidden from engaging in combat with Abu Sayyaf, under terms agreed with the Philippines government.

Around 100 US troops are instead equipped with the latest unmanned spy planes and electronic eavesdropping equipment to gather intelligence on their allies' targets.

US marines and Jolo villagers - archive picture
The US says villagers are slowly being won over

Meanwhile, since 1997, USAid has spent $4m a year building schools, clinics and roads to win hearts and minds on the island, one of the poorest places in the Philippines.

The posting is an unusual one for military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Infantryman Tommy Bairefoot, 26, transferred from convoy security in Iraq.

"It is a bit like being in paradise, and you don't have to worry about roadside bombs here," he said.

With combat strictly banned, much of the Americans' time is spent on hearts and minds programmes.

Troops set up clinics where villagers who rarely see the inside of a hospital are treated.

At one clinic, Special Forces Captain Ryan Mienecke said that he had not been near any fighting during five months on the island but had seen plenty of Abu Sayyaf militants.

Gesturing at the villagers who had arrived to see an army doctor he said: "Take a look around you. I'm sure some of them are here at this camp."

Human rights concerns

The US troops are full of praise for their Philippine allies, who have fought Muslim rebels for years in Jolo and surrounding islands, but only managed to win over much local support in recent years, partly thanks to US money.

General Juancho Sabban and his men
General Juancho Sabban says Abu Sayyaf will be wiped out

Special Forces Captain Ian Berg said: "The islanders don't really support Abu Sayyaf they just want stability, and that's what's being established here."

The US Government has also spent millions of dollars on rewards for information leading to the arrest or killing of named militants.

The two most wanted are accused Bali bombers Umar Patak and Dulmatin, who has a $5m price on his head.

A major success came at the end of 2006 when Abu Sayyaf's leader Khadaffy Janjalani was killed in a fire fight.

Islanders are wary about the military but most agree that crime rates are down and an edgy normality has returned after years of chaos and bloodshed.

Some human rights campaigners are critical of the Philippines military, however, claiming that civilians are killed in the fighting as well as militants.

Merlie Mendoza, of human rights group Tabang Mindanao, said: "Villagers see armed men, whether guerrillas or the military, they run away into the trees, and in the confusion they are shot. There are not investigations into what happens and nobody knows how often it happens."

General Juancho Sabban, the ebullient public face of the fight against Abu Sayyaf, is confident that the tactics are working and that Abu Sayyaf will eventually be wiped out.

"If you win the people, you win the war," he said.

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20 Jan 07 |  Asia-Pacific
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17 Jan 07 |  Asia-Pacific
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Country profile: The Philippines
03 Jan 06 |  Country profiles

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