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Wolfowitz Meets with U.S. Troops in Philippines

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

BASILAN ISLAND, The Philippines, June 3, 2002 -- Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz met with U.S. service members fighting the war on terrorism in a different, vital manner.

Wolfowitz traveled to this southern Philippine island today to meet with members of Joint Task Force 510 and to assess U.S. efforts in training and assisting Philippine forces to deal with terrorist groups that have found a haven here. The effort is due to end in July, and around 1,000 U.S. troops are in the area now.

Philippine Secretary of National Defense Angelo Reyes told reporters traveling with Wolfowitz that the Philippines favors extending the U.S. stay in the area.

The deputy secretary met earlier with Philippine government leaders, including President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

"I believe we've made impressive progress in just a few months in Basilan, both in terms of improving conditions on the island itself and in increasing the capability of the Philippine armed forces to deal with jobs like this, which is the principal objective," he said.

Wolfowitz will report to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who will assess the information and then make his recommendation to President Bush.

The Abu Sayyaf terror group has links to al Qaeda and is the most well known in the area. The group kidnapped an American missionary couple more than a year ago and has demanded a $1 million ransom.

U.S. service members are working with the Philippine military to improve local units' counterterrorism skills. Navy and Marine Corps engineers are also working on the island. Those groups, protected by Marine infantrymen, are building roads and bridges, digging wells, rehabilitating a landing strip and building piers.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, joint task force commander, said the projects are all things the U.S. forces on the island need in order to do their jobs, but they also will have a lasting effect on Basilan's people. "This will reinforce in the minds of the population that the government can provide peace and stability here," he said.

The people of the island have responded. Those in the villages said they feel safer now that the United States is helping the Philippine military. One local mayor said his village has come alive again since the U.S. Special Forces A Teams came into the area.

"The terrorists are not terrorists; they are thugs," said one man. "There was no law. There was no safety. People now do not get shot in the street."

The people of Basilan want the American forces to stay on the island. They said they are afraid the situation would revert if the Americans left.

For their part, Special Forces personnel, now limited to training and assistance at the battalion level, say they would like to move to the company level.

"I know the Congress is afraid someone will get killed in combat out here," said one Special Forces officer. "But we're the ones with the most to lose, and we see advantages to going to the company level. We also see advantages to extending the exercise."

From a personal standpoint, Wolfowitz said, he came away from the island feeling exhilarated after meeting the troops. "These men and women perform superbly no matter what situation we put them in," he said. "And they are doing a great job here."

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