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Last Updated:  Friday, 14 March, 2003, 13:14 GMT
Arroyo wary of US role in Sulu
US troops with Philippine soldiers on the island of Mindanao
US troops are involved in training Filipino soldiers
Philippines President Gloria Arroyo appears to have ruled out the deployment of American troops to help in counter-terrorism exercises in the sensitive southern Sulu islands.

United States special forces are already involved in training local units on the nearby island of Mindanao, and the US has been pushing for the programme to be extended to Sulu and its main island of Jolo, a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf rebel group.

Mrs Arroyo described her decision as "pretty final" and said the exercises would still go ahead, but in other provinces.

"There are other places where the locals and even the public officials have officially declared an invitation," she said.

But she did not specify which areas were being considered.

US soldiers are in the region to give local troops training and equipment to help in their counter-terrorism activities.

In February, US officials said the programme would be extended to Jolo as it sought to target the Abu Sayyaf, which is best known for kidnapping for ransom but which the US has linked to Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda group.

But US hopes that its troops would be allowed a combat role attracted Philippine opposition, and the two governments are still negotiating the terms of the training exercises.

Foreign troops are banned by the Philippine constitution from engaging in active combat in the country, and Philippine officials have repeatedly stressed that the joint exercises will only involve training and humanitarian relief.

Continued clashes

The Abu Sayyaf is just one of several militant groups in the southern Philippines.

Army officials said on Friday that there had been further clashes between government troops and rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on the island of Mindanao.

At least six MILF rebels were killed on a highway linking the towns of Cotabato and Davao, army and rebel spokesmen said.

On Thursday there were further rebel casualties, when the military launched air strikes near the town of Pikit.

The raids were carried out to prevent the rebels regaining a camp in the marshy area of Buliok, which was captured by the army last month, Philippine officials said.

The rebels were forced from the area when the government launched a military offensive after accusing the group of harbouring terrorists.

The 12,500-strong MILF group has waged a 25-year-old campaign for an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

Despite signing a peace agreement with the government, sporadic violence continues.

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