U.S. military officers see no need to stay after Basilan construction projects finished

TIPO-TIPO, Philippines, AP

U.S. military engineers said Saturday they expect to soon finish infrastructure projects on a southern Philippine island where a Muslim extremist group is based, adding there was little need to extend their stay.

The projects are part of a six-month counterterrorism exercise involving U.S. and Filipino soldiers on the island of Basilan aimed at wiping out the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group.

Besides the engineers, about 160 U.S. Special Forces soldiers are on Basilan to train Filipino soldiers who are hunting the Abu Sayyaf. They are all part of a 1,000-strong U.S. contingent helping the Philippine military better fight extremists.

While the presence of U.S. troops has been a sensitive topic in the Philippines, which was ruled by Washington as a U.S. commonwealth from 1898 to 1946, there have been repeated calls from local lawmakers and residents for the U.S. troops to stay beyond the July 31 end of the exercise to ensure stability in the troubled south.

However, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has expressed reluctance to do so.

U.S. Lt. Col. Brian Hearnsberger, who heads 340 Marine engineers and Navy Seabees based on Basilan, said he expects to finish all the infrastructure projects by early next month.

He and other officers said the projects, which include the building of roads, bridges, piers, water wells and repairing an airstrip, will benefit both the Philippine military and local residents.

Philippine officers have complained of the lack of facilities to quickly deploy troops to respond to attacks by the Abu Sayyaf. Supplies also have to be shipped from nearby Zamboanga city on slow cargo vessels.

U.S. Marine Capt. Dan Miller of Iowa said the roads will allow more frequent travel and commerce between island towns. He added that sections of road where rebels have ambushed vehicles “have been taken out.”

Kasanarin Aslain, a local village council member, said his community welcomed the U.S. road construction.

“Our enemies will be driven away,” he said, referring to the Abu Sayyaf. “This is like God coming down to us.”