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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Bulatlat November 4-10, 2007

U.S. Serviceman Dead in Sulu: A 'Non-Combat Related Incident'?

The recovery of a dead U.S. soldier in Panamao, Sulu and reports of U.S. troops in counter-"terrorist" operations in Basilan raise questions on their role in Mindanao.

By Alexander Martin Remollino

The recent recovery of a dead U.S. serviceman in Panamao, Sulu as well as previous reports that U.S. soldiers are involved in counter-“terrorist” operations in Basilan raise questions on the role of U.S. troops in strife-torn Mindanao.

Earlier news reports said that the U.S. serviceman had gone swimming with fellow soldiers in a lake in Panamao a little over a week ago. His body was recovered on Oct. 27. According to Rebecca Thompson, spokesperson of the U.S. Embassy in Manila, the U.S. serviceman had died the day before.

Sulu police director S/Supt. Ahirum Ajirim gave media no details on the U.S. serviceman’s death except that his body was recovered from the lake in Panamao at around 8 a.m., Oct. 27.

U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Fred Kuebler confirmed the U.S. serviceman’s death to media. He said the U.S. serviceman had perished in a “non-combat related incident.”

Government spokespersons have always said the presence of U.S. troops in Sulu is for training Philippine troops in counter-“terrorism” operations, and for “civic” or “humanitarian” missions.

But as Concerned Citizens of Sulu convener and former Jolo councilor Temogen “Cocoy” Tulawie told Bulatlat in an interview earlier this year, U.S. troop movements have always been seen in areas where the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) engaged or figured in clashes with either the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) or the bandit Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

“Military operations always take place not far from where U.S. troops are,” said Tulawie. “The presence of U.S. troops has been visible in areas where military operations have taken place.”

While Tulawie said there is yet no evidence that U.S. troops have actually participated in combat operations, their visibility in areas where AFP operations have been conducted raises questions on the real reasons behind their presence in the country’s southernmost province.

Such questions again come to the fore with the recent recovery of a U.S. serviceman’s remains in a lake in Panamao, Sulu.

But it is not only in Sulu that U.S. troops are present. In mid-September, Army officials announced that a small number of U.S. troops had been deployed to Basilan to support the AFP’s Task Force Thunder in its operations against the ASG.

“This support includes the sharing of information as well as the planning and execution of Civil Military Operations,” said Maj. Eugene Batara, an Army spokesperson in Basilan. “U.S. troops have commonly supported AFP operations in Basilan going back to 2002, and have worked with the AFP most recently to conduct medical clinics and participate in engineering projects. They are helping us defeat terrorism and at the same time help carry out humanitarian activities.”

Task Force Thunder was created by the AFP to combat what is described as the “growing” ASG presence in Basilan, where Marines purportedly in search of the kidnappers of Italian priest Fr. Giancarlo Bossi were beheaded following an encounter last July.

JSOTF-P and Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines

The U.S. troops in Sulu and Basilan are part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), which is reportedly based in Zamboanga City. Based on several news items from the Philippine Information Agency (PIA), the JSOTF-P are in Mindanao to train the AFP’s Southern Command (Southcom) and to conduct civic actions.

However, an article recently written by Command Sgt. Maj. William Eckert of the JSOTF-P, “Defeating the Idea: Unconventional Warfare in Southern Philippines,” hints that there is more to the task force’s work than training AFP troops and embarking on “humanitarian actions.” Wrote Eckert:

“Working in close coordination with the U.S. Embassy, JSOTF-P uses Special Forces, Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations forces to conduct deliberate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in very focused areas, and based on collection plans, to perform tasks to prepare the environment and obtain critical information requirements. The information is used to determine the capabilities, intentions and activities of threat groups that exist within the local population and to focus U.S. forces – and the AFP – on providing security to the local populace. It is truly a joint operation, in which Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, and Land forces) and SOF (Special Operations Forces) aviators work with their AFP counterparts to enhance the AFP’s capacities.”

The JSOTF-P was established by the U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC). It began its work when SOCPAC deployed to the Philippines Joint Task Force (JTF) 510. Based on an item on the website GlobalSecurity.org, JTF 510 was deployed to the Philippines “to support Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Operation Enduring Freedom is the official name given to the U.S. government’s military response to the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001 in New York City. It entails a series of anti-“terrorism” activities in Afghanistan, the Philippines, the Horn of Africa, Trans-Sahara, and Pakinsi Gorge.

JTF 510 was deployed to Basilan in January 2002 purportedly to help in uprooting the ASG. Its mission was carried out under the auspices of Balikatan 02-1, supposedly a series of joint military exercises between U.S. and Philippine troops.

Its mission ended in July 2002 and the task force has since transitioned into what is now the JSOTF-P, with its base located in Zamboanga City.

In 2004, the JSOTF-P deployed to Sulu and U.S. military presence in the island-province has been continuous since then.

U.S. troops would have entered Sulu as early as February 2003. The AFP and the U.S. Armed Forces had both announced that the Balikatan military exercises for that year would be held in Sulu.

This provoked a wave of protest from the people of Sulu, who had not yet forgotten what has come to be known as the Bud Dajo Massacre, in which more than 700 Moro fighters wielding meleé weapons were crushed by U.S. troops with naval cannons in 1906. The announcement in February 2003 that the year’s Balikatan military exercises would be held in Sulu summoned bitter memories of the Bud Dajo Massacre and led to protest actions where thousands of Sulu residents participated.

But by coming in small groups bringing relief goods, U.S. troops were able to win the hearts of a large number of Sulu residents and resistance to U.S. military entry into the island-province was neutralized.

And now, aside from being in Sulu, JSOTF-P troops are again in Basilan, if we go by the military’s own statements, to help in counter-“terrorism” operations there.

Sulu and Basilan

Sulu and Basilan are both part of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was created as a concession to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1996.

During the presidency of Diosdado Macapagal (1961-1965), Sabah, an island near Mindanao to which the Philippines has a historic claim, ended up in the hands of the Malaysian government. His successor Ferdinand Marcos later conceived a scheme which involved the recruitment of between 28 and 64 Moro fighters to occupy Sabah.

The reported summary execution of these recruits in 1968 by their superiors, which Moro historian Salah Jubair says was due to their refusal to follow orders, led to widespread outrage among Moros and led to the formation of the MNLF that same year.

The MNLF, which fought for an independent state in Muslim Mindanao, entered into a series of negotiations with the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP), beginning in the 1970s under the Marcos government. Conflicts on the issue of autonomy led to a breakdown of talks between the GRP and the MNLF in 1978, prompting a group led by Dr. Salamat Hashim to break away from the MNLF and form the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Since then, the MILF has been fighting for an Islamic state in Mindanao.

In 1996, the MNLF signed a Final Peace Agreement with the GRP which created the ARMM as a concession to the group. That same year, the MILF began peace negotiations with the GRP.

Sulu is also currently the site of oil exploration operations involving several foreign companies including a U.S. corporation.

In 2005, the Department of Energy awarded Service Contract 56 to Australia’s BHP Billiton Petroleum PTY Ltd., Amerada Hess Ltd., Unocal Sulu Ltd., and Sandakan Oil II, LCC. Amerada Hess Ltd. is a unit of Hess Ltd., a U.S.-based oil and gas exploration company.

Based on a 2005 news item published by the Philippine Information Agency (PIA), Service Contract 56 covers some 8,620 hectares offshore Sulu Sea, an area described as “one of the most prospective areas for oil and gas exploration as indicated by the previous drilling activities conducted in the area.”

Basilan, meanwhile, is presently a known stronghold of the MILF, whose peace talks with the GRP have repeatedly hit a snag on the issue of ancestral domain.

Copyright 2007, Bulatlat * Alipato Media Center Inc.