Rebel hunt widens as new island included in exercises
The search for fleeing leaders of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group has been stepped up with the widening of a joint Philippine-US military training exercise.
Defence Secretary Angelo Reyes confirmed yesterday that the ongoing Balikatan exercises now included the island of Sulu, where three Abu Sayyaf leaders, including its chief, Khaddafy Janjalani, were thought to be hiding.
Muslim leaders from the area cautioned that while Sulu residents were overwhelmingly against the Abu Sayyaf, they resented the ongoing military offensive that was harming civilians. The resentment could extend to participating US forces.
The Balikatan exercises originally were designed to be held in the neighbouring island province of Basilan, where 19 hostages were held by the Abu Sayyaf after being snatched from a Palawan resort. Three of the victims - a US couple and a Filipina nurse - were moved around Basilan for more than a year.
Among the Balikatan aims were for American 'military advisers' to train Filipino troops in rescuing the hostages and neutralising bandit leaders.
Mr Reyes said yesterday the military had launched a full-scale offensive in Sulu to find Abu Sayyaf leaders Janjalani, Galib Andang, alias Commander Robot, and Radulan Sahiron.
'The US is assisting us in the area of advising, intelligence processing, communications, but not in combat operations,' he said.
Mr Reyes would not say if US troops were present in Sulu but admitted 'training would extend to running after the Abu Sayyaf'.
He said the Philippines should not limit itself by not receiving advice beyond Basilan. Muslim leaders warned the military to be careful because the solution could create larger problems.
Congressman Hussin Amin said the recent military bombings and artillery fire of alleged Abu Sayyaf lairs in the towns of Patikul and Luuk, in Sulu, had caused heavy civilian casualties.
Mr Amin, who represents Sulu province in Congress, lamented that 'they cannot really identify civilians from the Abu Sayyaf, so that many residents are affected'. 'While 95 per cent of residents are against the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo, the problem is the way the armed forces operate,' he said.
Office of Muslim Affairs director Habib Hashim said the American soldiers and their infrastructure projects would be welcome in Sulu, just like in Basilan. But he cautioned joint training officials that Sulu was unlike Basilan because of the nature of the Tausug tribe which populated the island.
They prided themselves in never having been conquered by Spanish or American colonisers. They also pioneered Muslim separatism and founded the Moro National Liberation Front, once the biggest secessionist group.
Mr Hashim, a former secessionist leader, said: 'They have to be very careful not to hurt civilians, most of whom are armed. There is a possibility of resistance, and a tendency to fight back.'
Mr Amin, also a former secessionist leader, said many residents believed rumours in the province that 'the Americans are coming to finish us'.
'You know how rumours are, and this could start trouble,' he said.