The Philippines will cancel a planned military training exercise if the US government insists on its troops becoming combatants against Muslim extremists, presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said yesterday. The government issued its strongest statement yet on the controversy after US defence officials leaked plans to send within days up to 3,000 American troops 'to disrupt and destroy' the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu, in the south. Rather than allow that to happen, Balikatan 03-1 would not push through, 'I can assure you,' Mr Bunye said, 'because the president truly believes that all exercises should be in accordance with our laws, specially with our constitution'. The constitution bars the deployment of US combat troops except under a new treaty. Mr Bunye said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had sent Defence Secretary Angelo Reyes to Washington to draw up the terms of reference. Mr Reyes hinted for the first time on Sunday that Balikatan was not yet final, contrary to what Pentagon officials implied. He said he had 'very clear' instructions from Mrs Arroyo that Balikatan should not violate the constitution. Mr Bunye spoke, another joint military training exercise with the US started inside an army camp in the southern Philippines. Edgardo Manuel, operations director of the Visiting Forces Agreement Commission, which monitors all joint training exercises, clarified that this counter-terrorism training course was separate from the controversial Balikatan 03-1. Mr Manuel said 250 Filipino soldiers would each be equipped with the latest military equipment. The exercise was opened by Lieutenant-General Narciso Abaya, armed forces southern command chief, and Colonel Douglas Lengenfelder, commander of the US Joint Operations Task Force. General Abaya said it was intended 'to put an end with finality to this menace [Abu Sayyaf] that is threatening the very essence of democracy'. Colonel Lengenfelder said several companies would be trained in 'sustained counter-terrorist capability to execute precision operations'.