US troops set for Muslim stronghold

Philippines President Gloria Arroyo says United States military trainers will be sent to a Muslim rebel stronghold where dozens of foreigners have been taken hostage in the last two years.

A presidential spokesman said the exercise would be held on the southern island of Jolo later in the year.

Jolo is a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf group, which the US Government considers a foreign terrorist organisation with past links to al-Qaeda.

It has put a $5m bounty on its top leaders for the murder of two Americans in a hostage crisis that ended last year.

The Abu Sayyaf - numbered at almost 500 by the Philippines military - is fighting for Muslim autonomy in the south of the overwhelmingly Catholic country.

Rebuilding

American troops have already led training exercises for the Philippine army in areas near Jolo.

A separate group of US trainers is due to start training "light reaction companies" of the Philippines army in the city of Zamboanga, near Jolo, this week.

The plan announced by President Arroyo is part of the annual US-Philippines Balikatan military manoeuvres.

The government says the American instructors will not do any fighting.

In a similar arrangement last year, American special forces' instructors accompanied Filipino soldiers on operations on the neighbouring island of Basilan.

After the Americans went home, President Arroyo announced that the Abu Sayyaf were all but finished.

The BBC's John McLean in Manila says the rebels were far from finished.

Most of the kidnappers on Basilan simply withdrew to neighbouring Jolo where they continued to elude the army and take hostages, our correspondent says.

Killings

The Abu Sayyaf is still holding three Indonesian sailors and four Filipino women evangelists.

Three years ago the group seized 21 hostages, including 11 Western tourists, from a beach in Malaysia.

All but one were later freed, reportedly for large ransoms.

In June last year, an American missionary and a Filipino nurse were killed during an operation to free another group of hostages from the Abu Sayyaf.

A third American hostage was beheaded, a fate suffered by several Filipinos taken prisoner by the Abu Sayyaf.

The group issues warnings that "those who do not believe in Allah will suffer the same fate".

US Major General Joseph Weber is due in the Philippines "within the next few days" to discuss this year's exercises.

17/02/2003

Bron : BBC World News

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