MANILA, Philippines – The U.S. military will conduct new exercises against Abu Sayyaf insurgents in the southern Philippines after they complete operations on Basilan island, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Monday.
About 1,000 U.S. military personnel are winding up a six-month counterterrorism exercise that helped local troops wage several bloody assaults against the Muslim extremists on Basilan.
The exercise has been dubbed Balikatan — "shoulder to shoulder" — by the local military and "Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines" by the Americans as an extension of Washington's war on terrorism.
In a speech marking the 55th anniversary of the founding of the Philippine air force, Arroyo indicated the new exercises would take place on Sulu, a violence-wracked island near Basilan that is also inhabited by the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, as well as Muslim separatist rebels.
"The coming Balikatans will have a Sulu component," Arroyo said. She did not elaborate.
Arroyo said the U.S. exercises should eventually shift back to their regular venues in military camps in the northern Philippine island of Luzon, Arroyo said.
Future training would heavily focus on night flying and equipment maintenance to bolster local troops' capability to fight and survive combat, Arroyo said.
Military chief of staff Gen. Roy Cimatu said Friday that local defense, military and diplomatic officials would hold talks with their U.S. counterparts to finalize plans for the new exercises, likely to be held in October.
Cimatu said there were plans to hold the training in Luzon, at an air base in central Mactan island and in Zamboanga.
Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, who heads U.S troops in the current exercise, said the local military "is still studying the security implications of holding the Balikatan in Sulu."
"It will be nice to know what we are going to expect in Sulu," Wurster told reporters at a Zamboanga military camp, where he attended graduation rites for 25 Filipino officers who completed a four-week counterterrorism course.
Security for the American military personnel has been a top U.S. concern. U.S. officials delayed a decision in the current exercise to bring American troops closer to the front lines because of concerns they could be exposed to more danger. The Americans can fire only in self-defense.