by Jim Gomez, Associated Press
ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) - More than its military benefits, a counterterrorism training exercise involving U.S. and Philippine troops serves as a warning that terrorists will find no haven in Southeast Asia, a top Filipino general said Saturday.
The maneuvers, called Balikatan or "shoulder to shoulder" will involve 660 Americans, including 160 Special Forces, who may observe Filipino troops in combat zones against battling the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf on the southern island of Basilan.
"The long-term benefit is an intangible," said Maj. Gen. Glicerio Sua, who heads a Philippine military force waging a large-scale assault against the rebels.
"It's the message that there is now a partnership against international terrorism and that they will not have a place in the Philippines or anywhere in the region."
The arrest in Manila last month of Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi of Indonesia indicates there are efforts by groups linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network to establish a Southeast Asian base, specifically in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, he said.
The United States has been providing weapons and training to help the ill-equipped Philippine military wipe out the Abu Sayyaf, which has also been linked in the past to al-Qaida.
The United States has recently relayed information it gathered in Afghanistan to Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines regarding terror suspects, a foreign diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. military logistical help and the war drills will help the Philippine military most in improving its capability to track the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, who constantly hide and run through Basilan's lush, mountainous jungles instead of engaging Filipino soldiers. U.S. troops will learn from the Filipinos' long combat experience in tropical jungles, Sua said.
While the United States and the Philippines are finalizing the exercise's terms, the more than 200 Americans who already have arrived in the southern port city of Zamboanga have largely been confined in the Philippine military's tightly secured Southern Command headquarters and an air base for security.
On Saturday, a few U.S. soldiers joined Philippine military and police officers in a golf tournament aimed at promoting peace in the southern Philippines.
"I just hope not to hit too many bad shots for the general," said a U.S. military officer named Shane who teamed up with Sua for 18 holes.
Although left-wing groups have opposed the war drills over concerns they could violate constitutional restrictions on foreign troops, protests have remained small largely because of public indignation over the criminal acts of the Abu Sayyaf, notorious for kidnappings and beheadings.
The rebels are holding Wichita, Kansas, missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap, the last remaining hostages from a kidnapping spree that started last May.
While there have been perceptions of lukewarm efforts by some neighboring countries in dealing with Muslim extremists, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's approach has been tough and high-profile.
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"We should know who are on the side of freedom and who are on the side of terrorism. No one should be a bystander. You're either for or against democracy, freedom and prosperity," Arroyo said Friday. "As your president I will not stop until the last of the Abu Sayyaf members is captured dead or alive."