General wants U.S. forces to extend stay

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines, Reuters

A Philippine general said on Sunday he would seek an extension of stay for some of the U.S. forces helping in his country’s campaign against Muslim rebels linked to the al-Qaida network.

Marine Brigadier-General Emmanuel Teodosion, co-director for the Philippines for the joint program, said he would seek an extension of the stay of U.S. military engineers beyond July so that they could complete their construction projects.

“I will recommend that it should be extended at least for the engineering teams,” he told reporters.

About 160 U.S. special forces are training Philippine soldiers in counter terrorism on nearby Basilan island in the south of the country, assisted by 340 American military engineers who are building roads and air strips to enable troops to move quickly against the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas.

The anti-terror exercise, designed to last for six months, is to end in July.

Bad weather around Basilan and lack of local construction materials have caused some of the engineering projects to be delayed, Teodosion said.

Some members of the Philippine Congress have said any extension of the U.S. military presence in this country would require the approval of the legislature.

The United States has linked the Abu Sayyaf to Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network, prime suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The Abu Sayyaf has been holding a U.S. missionary couple and a Filipino nurse hostage for almost a year on Basilan, a largely Muslim island 900 km (560 miles) south of Manila.

An Abu Sayyaf spokesman said earlier this month the group might kill the missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham in the face of the refusal of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s government to negotiate with the group.

The guerrillas have demanded a ransom of US$2 million for the Burnhams’ release.

Officials in Washington said last month U.S. intermediaries were used to hand over US$300,000 of privately raised money to an Abu Sayyaf representative for the release of the missionaries. An Abu Sayyaf spokesman later said the group had not received any money.