ZAMBOANGA, Philippines – U.S. forces formally ended a military training exercise in the southern Philippines on Wednesday that had been the military's first expansion of the global war on terrorism beyond the Afghan theater.
The exercise involved 1,000 Green Beret trainers, support personnel and military engineers. Most have been packing up and leaving over the past week. About 300 will stay on to finish infrastructure projects on nearby Basilan island, once a key base of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group.
The Americans provided training, equipment, intelligence and advice aimed at helping the Philippine military wipe out the Muslim extremist group, responsible for a yearlong kidnapping spree that ended June 7 in a bloody rescue attempt of the last three of 102 hostages.
American missionary Gracia Burnham was freed, but her husband Martin and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap were killed.
Still, both U.S. and Philippine officials have called the exercise a success, saying the Abu Sayyaf has been decimated by deaths, arrests and surrenders.
The head of U.S. forces in the operation said Tuesday that Abu Sayyaf has been effectively driven out of Basilan, while crack Philippine troops have benefited from the training and a boost in morale.
Abu Sayyaf "has not begun to feel the potential that the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) is growing into," Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster said in an exclusive interview with Associated Press Television News.
"It's going to be the end of them and the world will be better for it," he said.
The Abu Sayyaf still operates on some nearby islands, with troops in hot pursuit and large rewards offered by the U.S. and Philippine governments for top leaders. Washington indicted five of them last week.
A separate string of training exercises, scattered throughout the Philippines, is scheduled to start in October and run for about eight months.