U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on Saturday hailed Philippines President Gloria Arroyo’s leadership in the fight against terror in Southeast Asia as he wrapped up a grueling tour of the region known as a hotbed of Islamic militants.
Powell declared himself “very pleased with the level of cooperation we are receiving” in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism throughout Southeast Asia, home to about half a billion people, including nearly 200 million Muslims.
“I think we are making progress,” he said.
“People are getting picked up around the world who, if they had not been picked up, would be well on their way to conducting a terrorist act and a number of nations in Southeast Asia have made important apprehensions in recent weeks,” he said, without giving details.
The U.S. has singled out the region, particularly the Philippines and Indonesia, as a possible sanctuary of al-Qaida operatives who survived the U.S.-led military campaign that routed the militants out of Afghanistan last year following the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Powell said, “there is not a nation in Southeast Asia that has not at one time or another, or today, been under the threat of terrorism.”
The U.S. envoy held brief talks at Malacanang Palace with Arroyo before jetting back to Washington, having also visited India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia.
He cited the Arroyo government for being “in the forefront of leadership in Southeast Asia with respect to the global war on terrorism.”
He hailed the signing in Brunei on Aug. 1, on the initiative of the Philippines, of a comprehensive pact between Southeast Asian nations and the United States “to prevent, disrupt and combat international terrorism.”
This was “further evidence that everybody recognizes the danger, knows we have to work together, knows we have to build capacity to work together and we have to focus not just on combat operations.”
As the two officials met, riot police used their shields to drive back several hundred anti-U.S. street protesters who attempted to march on the palace from a street half a kilometer (0.3 miles) away.
Leftist groups allege Washington would use the threat by armed Islamic militants, particularly the Abu Sayyaf group, as a leverage to secure permanent military basing rights in the Philippines.
But Powell stressed Saturday that Washington has no such plans and had no interest in permanently stationing large numbers of U.S. troops in the Philippines as in the past.
Across town, a smaller group of pro-American demonstrators held a festive street rally outside the U.S. mission, illustrating the Philippines’ ambivalence towards the U.S. military presence.
About 1,000 U.S. military advisers and engineers completed a six-month mission in the southern Philippines last month devoted to training and advising local troops fighting the Abu Sayyaf, as well as rebuilding the infrastructure of rebellion-wracked Basilan island.
Powell said he was “impressed by the Philippine Army’s successes against the Abu Sayyaf” and said “our excellent cooperation with the Philippines will continue on both the civilian and military side.”
He stressed that the U.S. is focusing on building a “broader relationship” with the Philippines and the rest of the region that is not limited to military aid.
Washington would do all it could to “strengthen democracy throughout Southeast Asia and help the leaders such as President Arroyo who are taking bold, strong stances for democracy. We want to be seen as standing alongside her and other leaders like her.”
Powell departed the country just a few hours after meeting Arroyo, airport officials said.