U.S., Philippines discuss on rebels

MANILA, Reuters

U.S. deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz held talks with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on Sunday on further steps the United States would take to help defeat local Muslim guerrillas linked to Osama bin Laden, officials said.

In its biggest troop deployment outside the war in Afghanistan, the United States has about 1,000 troops in the southern Philippines training Filipino soldiers in counter-terrorism to combat the Abu Sayyaf rebels.

Wolfowitz and Arroyo discussed a proposal for U.S. military advisers to move closer to areas where Filipino combat troops operate against the Abu Sayyaf to make the training “more realistic”, Philippine presidential National Security Adviser Roilo Golez told Reuters by phone.

He said a decision on the proposal would be announced soon.

“The government is open to considering (the proposal),” Golez said in a statement before the meeting.

At present, the exercises are held mainly around military camps on the southern island of Basilan where the risks of exposing U.S. troops to combat are deemed remote.

Wolfowitz’s visit coincided with the launch of what local commanders said was a major offensive against the Abu Sayyaf in the Zamboanga peninsula on the main southern island of Mindanao.

The fighting involved rebels who had fled from their Basilan stronghold, the military said. Four soldiers were wounded while the rebels suffered undertermined casualties in initial clashes which occurred far from areas where U.S. troops are deployed.

In a separate action, government troops shot dead a guerrilla commander in a raid on his hideout in the southern city of Zamboanga. The military identified the slain rebel as a brother of Isnilon Hapilon, one of five senior Abu Sayyaf leaders for whose capture Washington has offered a reward of US$5 million each.

Wolfowitz did not talk to media on his arrival, but during a visit to Singapore on Saturday he told Reuters he would look into what else the United States could do to help the Philippines. “In the Philippines, a major objective of my stop is to get a first hand look at what our people are doing down in Mindanao and report back to (Defense) Secretary (Donald) Rumsfield, to give him advice as he considers options for the next phase of our work there,” Wolfowitz said.

“That work is aimed at giving the Filipinos the capability to deal with their own problems. They are quite emphatic that that’s what they want to do, but they are quite willing to take help in getting there.”