KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – The Philippine foreign minister on Monday accused "junior officials" in Washington of falsely stating U.S. troops would engage in combat alongside Philippine soldiers to fight militants in the Southeast Asian nation.
Unidentified Pentagon officials were quoted last week as saying more than 1,000 U.S. troops, including 350 special operations soldiers, would deploy for combat against the Islamic militant Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippine island of Jolo. No date was given.
Philippine officials immediately denied the reports, saying there would be no combat role for the U.S. troops.
"These reports emanate from junior officials who don't know what they are talking about," Philippine Foreign Secretary Blas Ople told reporters on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Malaysia.
Such an active role for U.S. troops would be a big leap from the counterterrorism advice, training and support given so far in the fight against the group.
A Pentagon spokesman said Friday a plan to send U.S. troops to the Philippines for "joint operations" was reached after months of talks.
"As we have stated, the United States and Philippine governments have agreed to conduct combined operations in the southern Philippines to disrupt and defeat the Abu Sayyaf group," said spokesman Lt. Cmdr Jeff Davis. "These operations will be led by the Armed Forces of the Philippines with the assistance of U.S. forces."
The presence of American troops is a sensitive issue in the Philippines, a former U.S. colony that forbids foreign troops unless allowed by a treaty.
U.S. troops previously provided similar training in southern Basilan in an operation that drew nearly daily protests at the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
Ople said U.S. troops in the Jolo exercise would stay out of the line of fire and act only as advisers, helping to train Philippine troops fighting the Muslim guerrillas.
Philippines Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes is headed to Washington to discuss terms of the training mission with U.S. defense officials. Ople said there would be some "refinements" in mission, but the U.S. troops "will not be allowed to enter combat."
Washington's opening of a new front against terrorism in the southern Philippines would likely trigger criticisms about the Philippine military's ability to crush the Abu Sayyaf.
It would also reinforce criticisms that last year's U.S. efforts failed to wipe out the rebels, many of whom fled from Basilan to Jolo.