BY NICK SOUDAKOFF
The US government has requested an additional 300 troops be allowed to perform "civic duties" on the Philippines island of Basilian as part of the Balikatan 02-1 war games nominally aimed at destroying the Abu Sayyaf kidnap group. The US currently has 660 troops involved in the exercise including 160 Special Forces soldiers.
Some 2600 US troops will also be deployed in Central Luzon in early April to take part in the Balikatan 02-2 war games. Throughout 2002 there are 10 exercises planned involving close to 5000 US troops.
Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has stated she has no problem with additional US troops joining the Basilian operation.
Fierce gun battles between government troops and rebels on Basilian have occurred since the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have stepped up patrols in pursuit of Abu Sayyaf. However, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has claimed that the clashes have been with its troops, in its base areas.
US Special Forces have been training and observing AFP units in combat as well as repeatedly rescuing and evacuating AFP casualties.
AFP spokesperson Brigadier-General Edilberto Adan has publicly accused the MILF of harbouring Abu Sayyaf combatants and of obstructing the AFP pursuit of them. He has stated that the AFP will attack MILF camps in Basilian once the military proves that the rebels are giving refuge to the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers. The MILF has an estimated 1000 combatants on the island and is the largest Moro national liberation organisation in the region.
On February 26 heavy fighting erupted between MILF guerrillas and government troops throughout central Mindanao. Some 60,000 people fled the fighting, which lasted until March 1. As a result of the fighting, formal negotiations between the MILF and the government are suspended, with only "back door" negotiations taking place.
The government has also suspended negotiations with the Communist Party-led National Democratic Front (NDF). The NDF accuses the government of using the Balikatan exercises to pressure it into surrendering. The NDF's armed wing, the New Peoples Army, has units throughout the Philippines including Mindanao.
From Green Left Weekly, March 27, 2002.
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