by Jim Gomez, Associated Press
TABIAWAN, Philippines (AP) - U.S. special forces soldiers on Saturday fanned out across Basilan island, where Muslim extremist rebels are holding a Kansas missionary couple and a Filipino nurse hostage, a Philippine army officer said.
The soldiers were armed with assault rifles and wore bulletproof vests, camouflage uniforms and headgear fitted with night-vision goggles. They were accompanied by members of the Philippine army's elite Light Reaction Company, which was trained by U.S. special forces last year to fight the Abu Sayyaf rebels.
The soldiers were among 21 members of a 160-strong U.S. contingent on Basilan island for a joint training exercise with the Philippine military aimed at wiping out the Abu Sayyaf, linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network.
Other American soldiers boarded aging Philippine air force helicopters for a flight around the southern island.
Military officials from both countries said the American troops, who are permitted to use their weapons only in self-defense, are prepared to handle threats from the Abu Sayyaf as they boost their Basilan presence as part of the U.S.-led global war on terror.
"Considering that they are American soldiers, the threat is there," said Col. Alexander Aleo, commander of the Philippine army's 103rd Brigade. "We have anticipated them and we are prepared to face the threat. Even the American soldiers have been briefed and they say they can defend themselves."
Asked if they fear for their safety, a U.S. Special Forces major, who asked to be identified only as Sam, said, "Honestly, no."
"We know that there is a risk and that's part of the job," he said.
The Special Forces are among 660 troops in the ongoing Balikatan, or "shoulder-to-shoulder," anti-terrorism exercise. Only special forces are allowed to travel to Basilan from nearby Zamboanga.
Lt. Col. Reynato Padua, commander of the Philippine army's 1st Scout Ranger Battallion, said the U.S. presence is a "psychological booster" for Filipino soldiers, who hope to acquire modern weapons and equipment from the Americans after the exercise.
Early Saturday, a Philippine navy ship unloaded about two dozen pickup trucks and other equipment that were brought to the 25-acre army camp nestled in hills overlooking a narrow strait separating Basilan from Zamboanga.
The U.S. soldiers pitched tents, stocked food and water rations and set up communications equipment.
Filipino soldiers mingled with the Americans and admired their gear, including satellite telephones, all-terrain vehicles and communications headsets worn under helmets.
As dogs and goats roamed freely around the camp, several Filipino soldiers cooked in a large blackened wok over a wood fire.
Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., and Filipino nurse Deborah Yap were seized by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas last May, and are believed to be held in the mountainous jungles of Basilan.
Padua said the Burnhams were last seen Jan. 27 in the Sampinit mountain area in central Basilan. He said about 80 guerrillas operate on the island, including about 30 guarding the hostages.
About 5,000 Filipino soldiers have been deployed to Basilan since last year.
On nearby Jolo island Saturday, two explosions killed at least five people - including a 14-year-old boy - and injured more than 40 others. An army commander blamed the Abu Sayyaf for the blasts, saying it was retaliation for army assaults days earlier that killed at least 10 guerrillas.
Also Saturday, police in the capital, Manila, arrested 11 suspected members of the Pentagon kidnap gang, active in the southern Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said.