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Fighting terror

Green Berets' aim: rescue notorious isle

©Associated Press
February 23, 2003

MANILA, Philippines -- Opening a new front in the war on terrorism, American soldiers are heading into combat on a rugged island in the southern Philippines long notorious for lawlessness and bloodshed.

Some 350 Green Berets are being sent to help poorly trained Filipino troops who have had little success against the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla band on Jolo island, where the Muslim fundamentalist group with ties to al-Qaida is entrenched in jungles that sprawl over jagged mountainsides.

Filipino officers warn the fight on Jolo will be much harder than last year's operation in which U.S. troops provided training and other noncombat assistance during an offensive that ended a brutal campaign of kidnappings and killings by Abu Sayyaf fighters on nearby Basilan island.

A top Muslim leader warned on Saturday that the planned deployment could trigger an anti-American backlash.

"I am afraid this might be fraught with danger," said Parouk Hussin, governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. "People are very poor, but everyone owns a gun."

An officer who worked with the Americans last year told the Associated Press that Jolo offers better defensive opportunities for the guerrillas than Basilan because the jungle is not as thick and lets them spot approaching troops at a distance.

Supply will be more troublesome because there isn't a big base to support the U.S. troops as there was on Basilan. The Pentagon says 400 American support troops will work from the port of Zamboanga on Basilan, 70 miles to the northeast.

U.S. soldiers will also come into contact with potentially hostile people more often because Jolo's airport and the two military camps suitable for U.S. forces sit in crowded neighborhoods on the predominantly Muslim island. For islanders, there also is the bitter history of the American soldiers led by Gen. John Pershing, who crushed a Muslim uprising on Jolo a century ago.

Jolo is 345 square miles of humid mud flats and forested uplands that look like large clumps of cauliflower from the air. Many white sand beaches and mangrove forests ring the island, a volcanic outcrop on the southwestern end of the Philippines. Most of the more than 600,000 people in Sulu province who live by farming and fishing on the main island of Jolo are among the poorest people in the impoverished country.

Asiri Abubakar, a Muslim who is a professor at the University of the Philippines, said the woeful conditions have bred resentment against the better-off, Christian parts of the country. He said the government needs to provide economic aid and engage in dialogue with the Muslims of Jolo and other nearby islands.

"The problem is from the colonial days and up to this very moment, the island has always been approached with a gun," Abubakar said.

Jolo has seethed in anarchy and conflict in recent decades, an extension of a long history of bloody feuds among the native Tausug tribesmen as well as with outsiders. Sakur Tan, a former governor, once described Jolo as an infection that makes the whole nation sick.

Col. Alexander Aleo, commander of an army brigade on Jolo, said the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas are well armed.

Two years ago, their faction took in millions of dollars in ransom by kidnapping 21 Western tourists and Asian workers from the Sipadan resort in neighboring Malaysia. They used the cash to acquire M-203 rocket-propelled grenades and 57mm and 90mm recoilless rifles that can knock out some armored vehicles, Aleo said.

He estimated the Abu Sayyaf band numbers just more than 200. But he said they frequently get help from 1,070 fighters in a renegade faction of the Moro National Liberation Front, which has strongholds and many civilian followers on Jolo.

-- Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

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