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Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 12:04 GMT
America's new anti-terror front
Anti-US demo in Manila
Anti-US protests broke out ahead of US deployment
By Simon Ingram in Zamboanga

The roar of giant US military transport planes is a familiar sound these days on the tarmac of the Edwin Andrews airbase in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga.

The base's high perimeter wall means the troops and their heavy equipment can arrive in Zamboanga almost unobserved.


We are looking forward to providing our friends and allies with the enhancement so that they can utilise those techniques in their ability to counter terrorism here

Major Cynthia Teramae,
US military spokeswoman
A formal ceremony in the city has marked the formal start of joint exercises between the Philippine army and troops from the United States.

The exercises - codenamed Balikatan - are being held on the southern island of Mindanao, close to the island stronghold of the rebel Abu Sayyaf group.

Ostensibly the US role will be limited to training and observation. But the exercises seem to have more ambitious goals.

They are getting under way in conditions if not of secrecy, then of studied ambiguity and US military spokesperson Major Cynthia Teramae intends to keep it that way.

US interest

"Our mission here is to advise and assist training activity," she says.

"We are looking forward to doing that - to providing our friends and allies, the armed forces of the Philippines, with the enhancement so that they can utilise those techniques in their ability to counter terrorism here."

The word terrorism, of course, is the vital clue.

US troops
Many people doubt the US will not have a combat role
Mindanao, a sprawling, impoverished corner of the Philippines notorious for its banditry and lawlessness, has suddenly become a new theatre in US President George Bush's war against Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

It is not an obvious choice, but the Americans do have one special interest here.

Over the airwaves of Radio Mindanao, Mary Jones begs for the life of her sister, Gracia Burnham, and her husband Martin. The kidnapping of the American couple last May was the work of the Abu Sayyaf, a renegade group that Washington insists is linked to Bin Laden.

Hostages

"I would like to make a personal appeal to Abu Sabaya and Janjalani and the rest of the Abu Sayyaf to please not harm Martin and Gracia and to work with the Filipino government," Ms Jones says.

Efforts by Philippine troops to liberate the couple from the jungles of Basilan, where they are being held, have been to no avail.

Mary Jones
Mary Jones has appealed for the release of her family
With no end in sight to the Burnhams' ordeal, nor to the deadly antics of the Abu Sayyaf in general, many here in Mindanao think that turning to Washington for help was the right thing to do.

Dennis Falcasantos counts his family, like the Burnhams, as victims of terrorism. Last November his home in the Zamboanga suburbs came under fire from another Muslim guerrilla group following a battle with government troops.

Protests

Mr Falcasantos spent two terrifying days as a hostage as the group negotiated their way to freedom. For him, the arrival of US forces looks like salvation.

"I don't care whether it's the Americans, it's the British, it's the Chinese, or it may even be Arabs who are against terrorism, for as long as we can solve these things - fine, well and good," he says.


We don't need the US imperialists and we don't need the US to dictate to our government

Anti-US protestor
But the reappearance of US troops, just a decade after nationalist sentiment forced the closure of their huge bases in the Philippines, has raised hackles in some quarters.

The capital, Manila, has seen almost daily protests by those who say the joint exercises are a violation of national sovereignty.

"We have to send the American military away from our country because this is ours and we don't need the US imperialists and we don't need the US, the Americans, to dictate our government," one anti-US protestor says.

Combat role?

"This is our country, it is ours, we have to send those Yankees home again."

In truth, neither the proponents nor the critics of these military exercises can be sure quite where they will lead.

President Arroyo's insistence that the US troops will have no combat role is doubted by many.

Equally, some, like local journalist Jenny Sansun, suspect that if President Bush is hoping for a quick success against the Abu Sayyaf, he may be disappointed.

"We're hoping and we're wishing, but in some instances we're also thinking that it wouldn't serve the very purpose," Ms Sansun says.

Failure to crush the Abu Sayyaf would be made all the worse of course were the Americans - termed advisors, just as they were in the early days of the Vietnam conflict - to be sucked into a quagmire with no obvious exits.

It is a possibility that the Pentagon, fresh from its triumph in Afghanistan, will be confident it can avoid.

See also:

31 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
US takes terror war to Philippines
31 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Army 'colluded' with Abu Sayyaf
06 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Guide to Philippines conflict
01 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
Who are the Abu Sayyaf?
18 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
US troops arrive in Basilan
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