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U.S., Philippines to Operate Against Abu Sayyaf Terrorists

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2003 – U.S. and Philippine forces will conduct combined operations against the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the Southern Philippines, DoD officials said today.

Philippine and U.S. officials have been discussing the situation for several months, DoD officials said. A high- level U.S. team worked out the final details earlier this month.

About 350 U.S. special operations personnel from the Army, Navy and Air Force will work with Philippine soldiers in the Sulu Archipelago. Another 750 Americans will provide logistics support from the headquarters in Zamboanga on Mindanao Island.

In addition, elements of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, based in Okinawa, Japan, and the USS Essex Amphibious Ready Group will provide additional support if needed. The forces afloat bring quick reaction teams, command and control assets, aviation support and medical support to the effort.

Officials said U.S. assessment teams are ready to deploy to Jolo Island in the center of the archipelago. The area is the new center of Abu Sayyaf activity. DoD officials said "hundreds" of Abu Sayyaf terrorists are in the area. Abu Sayyaf is linked with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.

While the group styles itself as working toward a Muslim country in the southern Philippines, it operates like an outlaw gang. It kidnaps for ransom, extracts tribute from civilians in the area and threatens stability in a predominantly Muslim area.

This is the second time in the global war on terror that U.S. forces have aided the Philippines against Abu Sayyaf. Last year, U.S. Special Forces trainers worked with the Philippine military on Basilan Island, once a stronghold of the terrorist group, on the northern end of the Sulu Archipelago.

In May 2001, the group kidnapped 20 tourists from a Dos Palmas Island resort. The hostages included three Americans, Martin and Gracia Burnham and Guillermo Sobero. Abu Sayyaf beheaded Sobero. In a June 2002 raid, Philippine forces rescued Gracia Burnham, but Abu Sayyaf forces murdered her husband during the fighting.

Later that month, Philippine forces overran several Abu Sayyaf camps and reportedly killed a major group leader, Abu Sabaya, in a predawn gunfight in boats at sea between Mindanao and Basilan islands. Witnesses said Sabaya was shot dead and fell overboard; his body was not recovered.

Abu Sayyaf shifted its attention from Basilan to other areas of the archipelago. On Oct. 2, 2002, the group planted a bomb that killed three persons including American soldier Sgt. 1st Class Mark Wayne Jackson.

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