U.S. anti-terror troops pack up amid protests

Jason Gutierrez, ZAMBOANGA, Philippines, AFP

U.S. troops continued to pack up Tuesday ahead of leaving the Philippines at the end of a six-month anti-terror mission, as protests flared both for and against their presence.

The troops dismantled two giant Chinook helicopters and packed them and other equipment into container vans ahead of the official end of the mission on Wednesday.

The preparations came after a night of violent street demonstrations both for and against the U.S. military presence in the Philippines.

At least five people were injured here late Monday when residents threw rocks at a convoy of leftist protesters from other provinces who had come here aboard 32 buses to oppose the U.S. military deployment.

The some 1,000 protesters, who spent the night at an isolated city park, had planned to march on the southern Philippines military headquarters Tuesday, but found themselves blocked by a phalanx of riot police and soldiers.

Authorities said the protesters, organized by the leftist Bayan (New Nationalist Alliance) coalition, did not have a city government permit and refused to let them leave a sports stadium where they had gathered.

Policemen locked the gates of the stadium while truncheon-wielding riot police surrounded the area. Soldiers with assault rifles, two armored vehicles and fire trucks backed them up to make sure there were no attempts to break out.

After fruitless negotiating, the protesters resigned themselves to staging an anti-U.S. program inside the stadium.

Bayan secretary general Teodoro Casino charged in a statement that the police and military instigated the stone-throwing incident late Monday. He insisted however that Bayan was not supportive of the Abu Sayyaf.

Local residents meanwhile, were allowed to stage a pro-U.S. rally in front of the military base.

The U.S. mission, involving about 1,000 U.S. military advisers and support units, provided training and advice for Filipino troops ranged against the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim guerrilla group with links to the al-Qaida network of Islamic militants.

Half the U.S. military contingent was deployed over the past six months in the nearby Abu Sayyaf stronghold of Basilan island, where they helped track down and kill senior Abu Sayyaf leader Abu Sabaya and rescue a U.S. hostage.

The head of military forces in the southern Philippines, Major General Ernesto Carolina, dismissed the anti-U.S. protests saying, “We are not going to waste our time and let them distract the U.S. from the higher mission of protecting the people from terrorism.”

On the U.S. pullout, Carolina said, “We do not have emotions about the Americans (leaving.) It’s no big deal.

“This is a regular periodic exercise. It has been finished and we have attained our objective,” he said.

The Americans will however be missed by the residents of Zamboanga City, who see them as protectors against the much-despised Abu Sayyaf who have staged kidnappings and bombings in the area. At the pro-U.S. rally, about 200 Zamboanga residents thanked the U.S. soldiers and asked them to stay longer.

“We love America,” one placard read, with others slamming the anti-U.S. group, while a band played American pop songs.

Various victims of the Abu Sayyaf gang declared their support for the U.S. presence.

“We need (the U.S. troops) here for the meantime,” said Lydia Ibanez, a Basilan resident whose husband was among about a dozen Filipino farmers kidnapped and beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf last year.

“They have helped us a lot,” she said in tears.

An elderly woman, Gliceria Ramirez, recalled the Abu Sayyaf “killed my two children. They chopped off their heads.”

“If (the Americans) go, the rebels will come again and harm us.

“We want U.S. troops to join the Filipinos in combating the Abu Sayyaf,” she added.