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U.S., Philippine officials to clarify troops' role

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2003

MANILA -- The Philippine defense secretary and the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command will meet in Honolulu today to begin to flesh out a plan to send U.S. forces to the southern Philippines, officials said Sunday.

The discussions between Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes and Adm. Thomas Fargo might help clarify the terms of the plan and help subdue controversy over whether U.S. forces will serve in a combat or training role in a joint effort to wipe out the Muslim guerrilla group Abu Sayyaf, officials said.

Reyes later will fly to Washington for talks with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials to discuss counterterrorism and other issues.

A Pentagon official said last week that U.S. forces will "actively participate" in combat operations with Philippine soldiers. Philippine officials have insisted U.S. troops will serve only as trainers in the field.

The distinction between training and combat roles is important in the Philippines. Last year during a similar debate over U.S. troops in the southern Philippines, the country's Supreme Court ruled a joint counterterrorism exercise was legal. But the court emphasized that U.S. troops were banned from engaging in combat during the operation, called Balikatan -- which means "shoulder to shoulder."

This year, at the Philippine government's request, Pentagon planners designed a program to counter Abu Sayyaf that would put U.S. troops on the front lines. On Feb. 4, U.S. officials presented their proposal to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and senior Philippine government officials. The plan was drafted in terms that sought to avoid the controversy of last year's exercise, a U.S. official said.

An agreement "in principle" emerged from a meeting at the presidential palace, Philippine officials said.

Asked Sunday during a radio interview what the Philippine government would do if the United States requested a combat role, Arroyo's spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, said the government would reject it. "That is, as of now, hypothetical, but if they would request that, we would not allow that because that's against the constitution," he said.

Meanwhile Sunday, Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya, chief of the Philippine armed forces Southern Command, said "big numbers of U.S. soldiers" would arrive in Zamboanga City in the next few weeks. The soldiers, he said, will be sent to Jolo island, site of the most intense Abu Sayyaf activity.

Abu Sayyaf has fought for a decade to establish an Islamic state in the southern part of the Philippines, a predominantly Roman Catholic country. The group has used kidnapping, extortion and assassination toward that goal. The State Department designated the group a terrorist organization in 1997, and U.S. officials have alleged it is loosely linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Also Sunday, military officials confirmed that Philippine soldiers killed a senior Abu Sayyaf commander, Mujib Susukan, Thursday in a battle on Jolo island.

Air filters won't work either, scientists say

WASHINGTON -- First it was duct tape and plastic sheeting. Now, Homeland Security folks are promoting high tech air filters to protect against bioterrorism.

Neither, scientists say, will do the job.

In its most recent advice to the nation, officials at the Department of Homeland Security have suggested that use of High Efficiency Particulate Air filters and even painters' type air masks can block dangerous contaminates.

"I'm certain there's been no good research to indicate" that HEPA filters could be effective against biochemical agents, said Greg Evans, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Bioterrorism Studies and Emerging Infections at the St. Louis University of Public Health. "That just makes no sense."

It is the second time in less than two weeks that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and his department have come under fire for providing questionable information and advice to an anxious American public. Ridge earlier told people to calm down and not to use the duct tape and plastic sheeting that the government only days before had urged people to stockpile.

Despite the critics of the filtration system, Homeland officials defend their recommendations.

"We worked very hard to make sure this information was vetted by people who are established experts in these fields," said Chad Kolton of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a division of the Homeland Security Department. "We are very confident that the information in there is useful and helpful or we wouldn't have moved forward with it."

Afghan commander calls for suicide attacks

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Afghan rebel commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar said he is proud the United States has branded him a terrorist and echoed Osama bin Laden's call for suicide attacks against Americans, according to a statement obtained Sunday by the Associated Press.

Calling the United States the "big Satan of the world," Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister, vowed jihad against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. American forces are combing parts of eastern Afghanistan for Hekmatyar, his loyalists and Taliban and al-Qaida fugitives.

"I ask the Muslims of the world to wage a guerrilla war by using suicide attacks," the statement said. "Now is not the time for large-scale group assaults, but rather for individual attacks."

Money sought for repatriation of Afghans

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Gearing up for the repatriation of an expected 1.2-million Afghan refugees this year, the United Nations called on donors Sunday to help pay for the massive operation.

The repatriation begins Sunday and is expected to cost $195-million, but donors have only provided $15.4-million, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Maki Shinohara said.

Shinohara said returning refugees would receive travel grants of up to $30 per person and basic supplies such as plastic sheeting, soap and flour.

Six civilians killed in battle

KABUL, Afghanistan -- At least six civilians were killed in factional fighting between longtime rival warlords in northern Afghanistan, a senior commander said Sunday.

Fighting between supporters of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and rival Gen. Atta Mohammed broke out Saturday near Maimana, the capital of Faryab province, said Gen. Abdul Sabor, one of Mohammed's senior lieutenants. One man, two women and three children were killed in the crossfire, Sabor said.

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