U.S. troops launch Philippine mission
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
U.S. troops today are expected to begin joint exercises in the northern Philippines, and a new round of counterterrorism training is scheduled next month in the south as part of ongoing programs organized by Special Operations Command Pacific at Camp Smith.
The 30-day "Balance Piston 03-5" starting today in Luzon involves about 300 special operations troops and training with Filipino soldiers on small-unit tactics, communications skills, land navigation, and medical and basic infantry skills.
Next month in Zamboanga in the south and on the central island of Cebu, U.S. troops will start a yearlong effort to conduct training with Armed Forces of the Philippines light infantry units.
Congress approved $25 million for the security assistance program that also provides such equipment as night-vision goggles, body armor and weapons to the light infantry battalions, officials said.
Army Maj. Cynthia Teramae, a spokeswoman for Special Operations Command Pacific, said the training grew out of the Operation Enduring Freedom mission in the Philippines that began last January in Zamboanga and on neighboring Basilan Island.
About 1,200 U.S. troops, including 160 from special operations, trained Filipino soldiers as part of a six-month counter-terrorism effort. The U.S. contingent, which included 350 Navy and Marine Corps engineers, also provided medical assistance, dug wells and built roads.
Philippine forces, with training from U.S. troops, were credited with breaking up the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf on Basilan, which the Bush administration said had ties to al-Qaida.
Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said at the close of the six-month exercise that U.S. troops would continue to train Philippine "light-reaction companies" and conduct counter-terrorism in areas such as Luzon.
"It was as a result of that Operation Enduring Freedom Philippines mission that we requested the security assistance funds to support this training that's going to happen in February," Teramae said.
Teramae said U.S. forces involved in the security assistance would not be in the field on patrols with Filipino soldiers.
Most of the American contingent for Balance Piston in the north and the security assistance program will be from the 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group at Torii Station in Japan, and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment in Taegu, South Korea.
Teramae said less than a dozen U.S. personnel from Camp Smith will be in the Philippines for the counterterrorism training that will include night-flying skills, and a noncommissioned officer academy. Over a year's time, about 200 troops are expected to take part.
Some 50 to 60 Kane'ohe Bay Marines have been in the Philippines as a security element in the south of the country.
Teramae said the United States provided $100,000 for medical and dental assistance, and $2 million for locally contracted infrastructure improvements including the reconstruction of hospitals on Basilan in Isabella and Lamitan, and a new hospital in Malaso. Plans also call for improving 14 schools and building seven clinics.
Reach William Cole at email@example.com or 525-5459.