Arroyo says U.S. troops can stay to complete work

MANILA, Philippines, AP

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Saturday she would allow around 340 American soldiers to stay after a counterterrorism exercise ends next month in order to finish military infrastructure projects needed to help destroy Muslim extremist guerrillas.

The American construction crews, comprising of Marine engineers and Navy Seabees, are part of a 1,200-strong U.S. contingent scheduled to leave at the end of the exercise on southern Basilan island on July 31.

Arroyo said she told military chief of staff Roy Cimatu to convey her decision to Adm. Thomas Fargo, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, when the two military officials meet in Hawaii on Thursday to discuss the counterterrorism training.

While most American troops, including about 160 U.S. Special Forces training Filipino soldiers on Basilan, would have to go next month, “the Seabees and their security escorts may continue to work on local structure projects,” Arroyo said.

The U.S. construction teams are improving roads, bridges, piers, water wells and an airstrip to allow faster military deployments against the al-Qaida linked Abu Sayyaf. The U.S. Special Forces are training local troops and have provided weapons to one of Asia’s poorest militaries.

U.S. officials have said they would try to finish the projects by next month. Work has been delayed by security problems, lack of construction materials and the onset of the rainy season.

Many residents of Basilan, an impoverished, jungle-clad island 880 kilometers (545 miles) south of Manila, have asked Arroyo to extend the U.S. military presence to ensure the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf are wiped out and the infrastructure projects completed.

Arroyo said U.S. and Philippine officials are discussing a new military training exercise. She did not elaborate, but added she would discuss this possibility and the ongoing U.S. training mission with U.S. President George W. Bush later Saturday.

Bush and Arroyo have agreed to allow U.S. military advisers to get closer to Basilan frontlines with local combat troops during the remaining weeks of the exercise.

That decision was delayed due to concerns that the Americans would be exposed to greater dangers and potential clashes in a country where foreign troops are barred from engaging in combat. The U.S. troops are armed but authorized only to fire in self-defense.

Any Filipino casualty, even among the rebels, inflicted by Americans could set off political problems for Arroyo, one of Washington’s strongest allies in Asia in its war on terrorism.

Left-wing groups have opposed the American military presence, a politically sensitive issue in the Philippines, which was colonized by the United States from 1898 to 1946.