Blasts greet U.S. troops in Philippines
By Jim Gomez
TABIAWAN, Philippines Grenade blasts ripped through a market and a movie theater in the southern Philippines yesterday, killing at least five people as more U.S. troops arrived under tight security to join a growing American force on a new front in the campaign against terrorism.
A U.S. helicopter crew secures the perimeter for special operations troops who will arrive today on Basilan island.
Two C-130 transport planes with 30 to 40 special operations members aboard flew in from Okinawa, Japan the second landing on a darkened runway in Zamboanga with its lights extinguished. It was unloaded with the engines running and then took off again.
The soldiers are joining 250 Americans already in Zamboanga for a six-month exercise focusing on Basilan, an island about 20 miles south of Zamboanga, where the guerrillas have been holding an American missionary couple captive for months.
The U.S. contingent is to grow to 660 in the coming weeks, including about 160 special operations troops who are the only American personnel allowed to travel to Basilan. An advance team flew to the island yesterday to set up at a Philippine army camp.
One grenade exploded at dawn on Jolo, an island 75 miles southwest of Basilan where an Abu Sayyaf faction has a presence, killing at least five people and injuring more than 40 near a crowded market, authorities said.
Hours later, a grenade exploded at a movie theater in downtown Zamboanga, the region's largest city, injuring at least five people watching "The Lord of the Rings."
The theater is about 4 miles from the Philippine military's Southern Command headquarters, where the U.S. personnel are staying.
Philippine officials said they suspected the Abu Sayyaf but that the blasts would not affect the exercise.
The director of the exercises for the Philippine side, Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Teodosio, said security for the Americans was adequate and would not be increased.
"Any addition could just alarm people," he said.
"We are confident with our force-protection plan," said a U.S. military spokesman, Sgt. Michael Farris.
Military officials said the American troops, who are permitted to use their weapons only in self-defense, are prepared to handle threats from the Abu Sayyaf as they boost their presence on Basilan.
"Considering that they are American soldiers, the threat is there. We have anticipated them and we are prepared to face the threat," said Col. Alexander Aleo, a Philippine army commander.
Some U.S. troops, armed with assault rifles and wearing bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles, visited three towns in Basilan yesterday with a Philippine army company trained by U.S. forces last year.
Others boarded aging Philippine air force helicopters for a familiarization flight of the rugged 300,000-acre island.
Asked whether they fear for their safety, a U.S. major, who asked to be identified only as Sam, said, "Honestly, no."
"We know that there is a risk and that's part of the job," he said.
Early yesterday, a Philippine navy ship unloaded about two dozen four-wheel drive pickup trucks and other equipment that was taken to the 25-acre Philippine army camp on Basilan, nestled in hills above the straits separate it from Zamboanga.
The U.S. soldiers pitched tent near basketball and tennis courts where they stocked up on food and water. Some set up laptop computers and communications equipment in a grandstand.
Filipino soldiers, several wearing slippers, mingled with the Americans, gawking at their satellite telephones, all-terrain vehicles and communications headsets. Dogs and goats roamed the camp while Filipino soldiers cooked in a large blackened wok over a wood fire.
Missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., were seized by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas last May and are believed to be held in the mountainous jungles of Basilan along with a Filipino nurse.
Lt. Col. Reynato Padua, a Philippine army commander, said the Burnhams were last seen Jan. 27 in a mountain area in central Basilan. He said about 80 guerrillas operate on the island, where about 5,000 Filipino soldiers have been deployed to Basilan since last year.
Abu Sayyaf claims it is fighting for an Islamic state in the mostly Muslim south of the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. The government, which is struggling against several guerrilla groups, says Abu Sayyaf members are bandits who use terror out for profit.
Yesterday, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said police arrested the suspected leader and 10 other members of the Pentagon Gang, a group that U.S. officials say has terrorist ties and that has been blamed for kidnapping wealthy Filipinos and foreigners.