US ready for next Balikatan

- Vic Alhambra () - June 22, 2002 - 12:00am
SAN FERNANDO, La Union — A meeting between President Arroyo and local officials here was suddenly interrupted yesterday by a very important call for the Chief Executive.

On the other line was US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone, eager to convey a message from US President George W. Bush.

Mrs. Arroyo said Bush had congratulated her on a job well done, moments after news broke out that the Philippine military had tracked down and killed Abu Sayyaf leader Abu Sabaya. The US leader said Washington was now ready to take anti-terror operations in the Philippines a step further.

"He was happy that the Abu Sayyaf problem has been solved," Mrs. Arroyo told participants of a joint meeting of the Regional Development Council and the Regional Peace and Order Council for the Ilocos at the Diego Silang Hall of the provincial capitol here.

The President said Bush informed her that the US will begin planning the next series of RP-US military exercises as soon as the "Balikatan" drills in Mindanao conclude on July 31.

"The exercises will be completed on July 31 as scheduled," she said. "The US is ready to schedule the next Balikatan."

More than 1,000 US troops are in Mindanao advising Filipino troops operating against the Abu Sayyaf, which the US has linked to the terror network of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.

The group reportedly got early support from al-Qaeda, but had steadily moved toward becoming a bandit gang, thriving on kidnapping-for-ransom.

The last time Bush called Mrs. Arroyo was on June 7, hours after two Abu Sayyaf hostages – US missionary Martin Burnham and Filipina nurse Edibora Yap – were killed in a military rescue attempt in Zamboanga del Norte. Burnham’s wife, Gracia, was rescued and has since returned to her family in Kansas.

Mrs. Arroyo said the US leader was fully briefed about the details of Operation Daybreak from the planning stage to the time the Scout Rangers attempted to rescue the Burnhams and Edibora.

Bush has called for an escalation of joint operations against the Abu Sayyaf, assuring Manila of continued assistance in pushing the operation forward.

National Security Adviser Roilo Golez told The STAR yesterday that he has confirmed from Ricciardone that US military advisers in Mindanao will be permitted to join Filipino troops at the company level in hunting down the remaining Abu Sayyaf fighters under the next Balikatan.

"This is acceptable to us. We are just waiting for the official approval from US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld," Golez said.
US advisers praise operation vs Abus
US Maj. Richard Sater, spokesman for the US military contingent in Mindanao, gave full credit to the Armed Forces of the Philippines for the victory against the Abu Sayyaf, saying US troops were not directly involved in the fighting.

"The operation was well-planned, well executed. We feel we can celebrate with the (AFP)," Sater said.

He said the US forces in the area had provided surveillance and communication equipment to the Filipino troops involved in the firefight.

"We are here to advise and assist. We helped out in that capacity this morning, providing some surveillance and communication, that sort of thing," he explained.

Asked if Americans were nearby, Sater said: "Yes, but I can’t say how near."

Sater hailed reports of Sabaya’s death as "a step forward against terrorism."

Hours after the clash, US aircraft airdropped leaflets repeating offers of as much as $5 million for information leading to the capture of other senior Abu Sayyaf leaders.

The fliers were dropped over the Abu Sayyaf strongholds of Sulu, the Zamboanga peninsula including Sibuco, and the Tawi-Tawi island group near the sea border with Malaysia.

Last May 30, the US government offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the capture of five top Abu Sayyaf leaders, including Abu Sabaya.

Others in the most wanted list are Khadafy Janjalani, Hamsiraji Sali, Isnilon Hapilon and Abu Solaiman. The US Embassy said the reward is open to anyone around the world who may provide information that would lead to the arrest of the five men.

When asked who would be receiving the reward following Sabaya’s death, US Embassy Press Attaché Frank Jenista explained that names of informants cannot be disclosed.

"It’s a confidential program, but we are pleased to see one of those in the list killed. This is a very good result, we are very delighted," Jenista said.

He gave his assurance that whoever supplied the information leading to the death and capture of Abu Sayyaf members would be rewarded. With Marichu Villanueva, Pia Lee-Brago

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