Fri, Jun 27, 2014 - Page 6 News List

US ending anti-terror force in Philippines

REFOCUSING:The JSOTF-P contingent numbered 500-600 at its height, but is now down to about 320. Some Pacific Command personnel will remain under a new unit

AP, MANILA

After more than a decade of helping fight al-Qaeda-linked militants, the US is disbanding an anti-terror contingent of hundreds of elite troops in the southern Philippines where armed groups such as Abu Sayyaf have largely been crippled, officials said yesterday.

However, special forces from the US Pacific Command, possibly in smaller numbers, will remain after the deactivation of the contingent called Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTF-P) to ensure al-Qaeda offshoots such as Abu Sayyaf and the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah militant network do not regain lost ground, according to US and Philippine officials.

The move marks a new chapter in the long-running battle against an al-Qaeda-inspired movement in the southern Philippines, viewed by the US as a key front in the global effort to keep terrorists at bay. It reflects shifting security strategies and focus in economically vibrant Asia, where new concerns such as multiple territorial conflicts involving China have alarmed Washington’s allies entangled in the disputes.

A year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US, the US military established the task force in the southern Philippines to help ill-equipped Philippine forces contain a bloody rampage by Abu Sayyaf gunmen, who carried out bombings, terrorized entire towns and kidnapped more than 100 people, including three Americans.

Although US forces are barred by the Philippine constitution from local combat, the advice, training, military equipment and intelligence, including drone surveillance, which they provided helped the underfunded Philippine military beat back the Abu Sayyaf.

US-backed Philippine offensives whittled the militants’ ranks from a few thousand fighters — mostly drawn from desperately poor hinterland villages — to about 300 gunmen, who survive on extortion and kidnappings for ransom while dodging military assaults.

“Our partnership with the Philippine security forces has been successful in drastically reducing the capabilities of domestic and transnational terrorist groups in the Philippines,” US embassy press attache Kurt Hoyer said in a written response to questions sent by e-mail by The Associated Press.

The remaining terrorists, he said, “have largely devolved into disorganized groups resorting to criminal undertakings to sustain their activities.”

That success has led US military planners in coordination with their Philippine counterparts “to begin working on a transition plan where the JSOTF-P as a task force will no longer exist,” Hoyer said, adding there were currently about 320 US military personnel left in the south.

There were about 500 to 600 US military personnel in the south before the drawdown.

Hoyer said a still-unspecified number of US personnel from the Pacific Command would remain under a new unit called the PACOM Augmentation Team to provide counter-terrorism and combat training and advice, and “ensure that violent extremist organizations don’t regain a foothold in the southern Philippines.”

He suggested the remaining US personnel would move away from training exercises with combat units in the field, and shift to working with Philippine security forces at unified commands and headquarters units.

Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin expressed confidence that Filipino forces could deal with any lingering threat from Muslim extremists in the south, scene of a decades-long Muslim separatist rebellion.

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