ZAMBOANGA, Philippines – The U.S. military is wrapping up deployment of 160 special forces troops to a southern Philippine island, where they will train local soldiers fighting a Muslim extremist group, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.
U.S. Army Maj. Cynthia Teramae said that about 80 special forces soldiers already are on Basilan, where the Abu Sayyaf group is holding missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., and Filipino nurse Deborah Yap.
Teramae said the rest of the special forces contingent is expected ``in a day or two.''
The joint Philippine-U.S. exercise, called Balikatan, or ``shoulder to shoulder,'' will involve 660 U.S. troops. Only the 160 from the special forces — armed only for self-defense — will be allowed to visit combat zones on Basilan to observe Filipino soldiers pursuing the Abu Sayyaf.
Teramae said U.S. trainers also will learn from Filipino soldiers, who have long experience in guerrilla warfare.
``They are really excited about learning how to work in the jungle atmosphere down there,'' she said.
She said some of the trainers are new to ``this kind of jungle'' on Basilan, where Filipino soldiers say the vegetation is so dense that they often cannot see beyond five yards.
She said the Americans on Basilan are assessing the Filipino soldiers alongside their commanders ``to determine what their strengths are, the areas in which they want to kind of focus on'' for the training.
Later, the Americans will formulate training modules tailor-made for each military unit they are assisting.
The special forces will be deployed in 12-man teams to each of the five Philippine army and three marine battalions on the island.
She said U.S. soldiers will provide training in modern equipment.
``That's the whole point of coming here — to share some newer technology, perhaps to give soldiers the edge to counterterrorism,'' Teramae said.
At the Tabiawan army camp on Basilan, about 20 special forces soldiers mingled with their Filipino counterparts Tuesday.
The Americans showed the Filipinos their M-4 assault rifles, similar to the M-16 that is standard issue for Philippine troops.
Filipino Sgt. Agustin Sulleza showed off his canvas bandolier to U.S. Staff Sgt. Neal Estrada, who admired the M-16 ammunition belt.
``I like it,'' said Estrada, who was surprised to learn it was locally made and bought by Sulleza out of his own pocket.
In Zamboanga, 10 miles across a narrow strait from Basilan, Teramae and other U.S. officers helped deliver about $20,000 worth of medicine, infant formula and vitamins to a shelter for orphaned and abandoned children.
The activity was part of the humanitarian component of the joint exercise, said Tony Lambino, spokesman for the program.
Kay Hiramine, executive director of the U.S.-based Humanitarian International Services Group, which collected the donation from U.S. businessmen, said they recently delivered winter coats and medicines in Afghanistan.
He said his group is focused on aiding children, including those in areas of conflict.
``If we can reach the children, if we can reach the people who are oppressed by injustice, then we can turn around and make this world a much better place,'' he said.