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US troops rile Filipino separatists

US troops deployed this week to fight Abu Sayyaf may provoke a broader militant Muslim backlash.

By Special to the Christian Science Monitor / February 20, 2002


Sharif Julabi, regional chairman of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), sits beneath a poster listing the 99 names of Allah and explains why the expansion of the Bush Administration's war on terror to the southern Philippines could backfire.

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"The claim is that [the US is] going after the Abu Sayyaf,'' says Mr. Julabi, referring to a 60 member Muslim kidnap-for-ransom gang that the US is helping to pursue on Basilan island, "But ... we think they're looking for a justification to go to war with us."

Zamboanga City on Basilan, the staging ground for the US operation, is shared by other wings of the MILF who are fearful of the US operation as well. It is shared by farmers, who worry about being caught in the cross fire; and it is shared by leaders of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a separatist group that signed a peace agreement with the Philippines five years ago but still has 20,000 armed men.

Local leaders warn it's a situation that, if handled badly, could inflame simmering Muslim resentment against the center and create a fresh generation of Muslim radicals who harbor a grudge against the US. "This could backfire,'' says Narimin Hussin, a former MNLF guerilla who now leads a seaweed-growing cooperative on Basilan. "If people get killed, their families will want revenge."

Fifty US special forces advisers arrived on Basilan over the weekend, soon to be joined by 110 more. Basilan is America's first non-Afghan deployment to a combat zone since the war began, and US and Philippine commanders are hoping that it will lead to the swift dismantling of the Abu Sayyaf.

Yesterday, a firefight broke out between Philippine soldiers and the Abu Sayyaf about four miles from where US forces are bivouacked, and over the past week at least 30 armed insurgents have been killed on Basilan and neighboring islands, 20 of whom were killed by mortar fire and attack helicopters on Jolo island, Philippines military officials say.

Though officially described as a six-month training exercise, US soldiers will be joining some of the 6,000 Filipino soldiers on the ground in combat patrols on Basilan, a Los Angeles-sized island home to about 300,000 people, 85 percent of whom are Muslim.

"It's a training mission with the Abu Sayyaf as the live target,'' explains Lt. Col. Danilo Servando of the Philippines military's Southern Command in Zamboanga City. "US soldiers are not to engage in combat, but they are allowed to defend themselves."

Ben Loong, a Muslim businessman and community leader in Zamboanga, worries about a spiral of violence. "The military approach is not a solution. You can kill all of the Abu Sayyaf, but twice as many will take their place if the people feel there is still injustice."

In addition to its 60-odd members on Basilan, the group has about 150 more members operating in the neighboring Sulu archipelago. Philippine intelligence agents say members of the group move freely back and forth between islands, and that they no longer know where Martin and Gracia Burnham, an American missionary couple the group kidnapped eight months ago, are being held.