Philippines bombing highlights complex web of terror

President Arroyo reiterates a ban on combat roles for American troops.

In the wake of a bomb blast that killed an American missionary and 20 others at an airport in Davao in the southern Philippines Tuesday, confusion reigned as to who was to blame.

The military quickly fingered the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and said it had arrested five members in connection with the attack. MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu denied the charge, said none of its members had been arrested, and described the attack as "barbaric."

Other Philippine security officials said the blast might have been the work of the "Pentagon," a kidnap-for-ransom gang with ties to Islamic militants that operate near Davao. Then on Wednesday, a senior member of a separate kidnapping group, Abu Sayyaf, told a Philippine television station that his organization had carried out the attack.

But the country's worst attack in more than two years has made one thing clear: The Philippine terrorism problem is as complicated as any in the world. The southern island of Mindanao, where most of the country's Muslim minority lives, is crisscrossed with competing criminal gangs, separatist organizations, and freelancers who cultivate multiple alliances. Many residents say police and military corruption have contributed to the problem.

The attack was evidence of why the Bush administration remains eager, despite the buildup toward war with Iraq, to send fresh troops to the Philippines to help fight Abu Sayyaf, probably the most aggressive of the armed groups in the area.

"The bombing underscores the seriousness of the terrorist threat in the southern Philippines," US President George Bush's Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Tuesday.

But it also underscores the confusing and potentially dangerous quagmire the US could face if it expands its military presence. The Bush administration has been pushing the Philippines to agree to the deployment of 3,000 US marines and soldiers to help hunt Abu Sayyaf in the tiny Sulu Archipelago off Mindanao's western peninsula, which serves as the group's stronghold.

While the Philippine military is eager for more aid and training, the country's constitution bars foreign troops from engaging in combat, and public opposition to the plan boiled over as the exercise drew near. A US deployment to Zamboanga City on Mindanao and the nearby Basilan Island to hunt Abu Sayyaf last year limited US troops to training Filipino commando units.

After negotiations this week between US and Filipino officials, President Gloria Arroyo Wednesday welcomed US help but reiterated there would be no role for US combat troops. "Help on surveillance, help on hardware, help on training, providing light in night battles, all of those can be allowed."

Anger over America's colonial past is an enduring strain on US-Filipino ties. In the Muslim south, a violent US-led campaign against Muslim separatists 100 years ago, is still remembered. "The US presence in the south can bring up dark wounds and old memories,'' says Marites Vitug, editor of Manila's Newsbreak magazine. "There's a danger - not a huge danger, but a danger - that the US could complicate peace efforts."

The attack in Davao came at about 5 pm on Tuesday, as a crowd gathered in a open-sided shed a short distance from the main airport terminal to greet friends and relatives arriving from Manila, the capital.

The Philippine police said the bomb, which had been left in a knapsack, injured more than 150 people when it ripped through the crowd. Among the dead was William Hyde, an American missionary from Iowa. Another American missionary and her two children were also wounded.

Until Tuesday's attack, Davao was one of the most peaceful cities on troubled Mindanao, where fighting between the MILF and Filipino troops, as well as the ubiquitous kidnap gangs, spawns hundreds of casualties each year. Wednesday, a bomb exploded in a store in the city of Cotabato. No casualties were reported.

One of the reasons for Davao's relative peace has been its distance from Abu Sayyaf - which has mostly operated near Zamboanga City and islands south of there, about 200 miles west of Davao. That distance is why Filipino officials downplayed a claim made by Abu Sayyaf commander Hamsiraji Sali that he ordered Tuesday's attack. Mr. Sali has been tied to a bomb attack in Zamboanga last October that killed an American soldier.

"We can't take (Sali's claims) at face value. They could be ... efforts to mislead the investigation," said Vidal Querol, the national police operations director.

The military insists the MILF is its prime target, pointing out that the group would have a motive for striking back: In February, the Philippine Army led a massive assault on a mountain MILF base not far from Davao, killing more than 100 rebels. Though the MILF retaliated by bombing government power installations, spokesman Mr. Kabalu claims the group does not engage in terrorism.

A third, and potentially more frightening, explanation exists. Filipino and regional intelligence officials say that in the 1990s Muslim militants - including key operatives in the Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) - were allowed to train at MILF bases on Mindanao, building personal relationships with MILF members.

Philippine investigators say some MILF members. impatient with the group's talks with the government, have drifted in a radical direction. Indonesian JI operative Fathur Rahman Al-Ghozi, in jail for bombing a Manila train station in 2000 and killing 22 people, has said that he had help from an MILF commander.

"I think there's a very real chance that as the MILF feels more pressure, some of its members are becoming more radical,'' says a Filipino investigator. "Over time, we could see the splintering of the MILF into more dangerous pieces."

Kabalu says there's no validity to this concern. "This idea that we have lost commands, or members acting on their own, is wrong." Instead, he alleges that the Philippine military is seeking to pin the Davao blast on his group to convince the government to abandon peace talks. "They're trying to discredit us."

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