WASHINGTON – American special forces are in the Philippines — and at least 100 more will follow — as the United States bolsters the Asian nation's defenses against radical Muslims linked to the Al Qaeda network.
With the war in Afghanistan in its third month, the dispatch of forces to the Philippines is an example of U.S. efforts to take the fight against terror elsewhere around the globe.
About two dozen U.S. special forces are doing logistical and security planning for the larger force that could arrive within a week, a defense official said Thursday on condition of anonymity.
The full complement of Americans is to train and advise Philippine forces in counterterrorism tactics to use against the extremist Abu Sayyaf group, which is holding U.S. missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham and Filipino nurse Deborah Yap hostage on southern Basilan island.
U.S. military officials have stressed that Afghanistan isn't the only country where Americans are fighting or plan to fight terrorists.
Overt and covert military operations are "going on in a great many places" to "do away with ... pockets of terrorism," the Afghanistan war's commander, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, said last month. He gave no details.
The U.S. advance team has been in the Philippines for weeks, officials said.
Warplanes and other equipment are to be provided in an expansion of a longtime U.S. counterterrorism program in that former American commonwealth. They were approved in a November agreement between Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and President Bush.
"We all know that the Philippine government has been very seriously attempting to deal with terrorists on one or two islands," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday.
"They have some hostages that have been taken over time, some of whom have been killed, some of whom, I believe, may have been released. But some are still held, including some Americans," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.
The group has been linked to the Al Qaeda network of Usama bin Laden, alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Philippine military clashes with another large Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, have considerably waned in recent months after the signing of a cease-fire agreement.
The new U.S. assistance approved two months after the attacks on America expands efforts dating back to 1993 to help the Philippines fight terrorism.
"Our belief is that the Philippine armed forces, when properly trained, equipped and assisted, are able to take on the war on terrorism in the southern Philippines on their own," said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan, spokesman for the Philippine armed forces, said this week the U.S. experts will provide training, assistance and advice on subjects including psychological warfare, intelligence and night flying.
Since the November agreement between the two presidents, the Philippines has received equipment including a C-130 transport plane, eight UH-1 Huey helicopters and 30,000 rifles, the Pentagon says.
Officials are expecting a patrol boat in the coming months.
The agreement specifies $100 million in U.S. military and law enforcement aid as well as hundreds of millions more in food aid, debt cancellation, trade guarantees, poverty reduction programs.
Gen. Diomedio Villanueva, Philippines' military chief of staff, said Wednesday that U.S. military advisers will be allowed to join front-line Filipino troops. His statement was the first by a senior Philippine military official that U.S. forces would be allowed in battle areas.