US troops on patrol in militant stronghold amid Philippine offensive
Tue Aug 14, 8:29 AM ET
Heavily-armed US Special Forces troops were seen leading a Philippine military convoy Tuesday on this strife torn southern island where security forces are fighting Muslim insurgents.
An AFP photographer filmed the US troops aboard a Humvee armoured jeep as two soldiers manned a vehicle top mounted machine-gun, with a miniature US flag clearly visible on the back of a soldier's helmet.
The troops were part of a convoy of Philippine marines hunting members of the Abu Sayyaf, an extremist group linked to Al-Qaeda and blamed for some of the worst terrorist attacks in the Philippines.
President Gloria Arroyo has ordered a limited military offensive against the group on the island following heavy military losses recent ambushes.
Nearly 20,000 civilians have fled their homes as thousands of Filipino troops deployed on Jolo and nearby Basilan island.
Lee McClenny, a spokesman at the US embassy, told AFP that the American troops in Jolo are mostly from the Special Forces and "are not involved in any combat roles."
However, they would "fire back if fired upon," he said.
McClenny added: "Our role is to advise and assist the Philippine military. This is the main focus of our anti-terror campaign."
The Americans headed a convoy of military trucks ferrying Filipino marines to a base on Jolo, the provincial capital of the southern island also called Jolo.
Arroyo's National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales told reporters earlier this week that the US, British and Australian military maintained "intelligence" units in the southern Philippines, where local Muslim separatist guerrillas are accused of providing training facilities to foreign Al Qaeda-linked militants.
Under a US-Philippines visiting forces agreement American soldiers deployed here are banned from actual combat, but both governments say they provide training and intelligence to Filipino troops going after the militants.
"Yes they travel with Philippine military convoys. We rotate our people in and out of Jolo on a regular basis," McClenny confirmed.