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Filipino says U.S. offered troops

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MANILA, Philippines — During a meeting at the White House in November, President Bush offered to send U.S. combat troops to tackle Muslim insurgents in the Philippines, the country's defense secretary said Thursday.

The Philippines rejected the offer but accepted a $100 million package of military equipment and training to help fight the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas who have been linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said.

"President Bush said: 'We are offering American forces to fight in the Philippines.' He said that in the White House. I was there," Reyes said. "President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said, 'No, no. We don't need American forces because our soldiers are good.' "

It was the first time a Filipino official said Bush directly offered U.S. troops to fight on Philippine soil.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan declined to comment late Wednesday.

But Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday that American troops would not become involved in fighting, insisting that the training mission was not an incremental step toward combat, as in the Vietnam War.

"It's quite different. This is nothing like Vietnam," Powell told ABC's "Good Morning America. "There is no intention for them (U.S. troops) to become active combatants. They are trainers. That's what the Philippines asked for, and that's what we provided."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the operation in the Philippines an extension of the U.S. war on terrorism, saying Wednesday that some troops were already on the ground and hundreds more would follow. In February, about 660 U.S. troops, including 160 U.S. Army Special Forces, are to start training Filipino soldiers to fight Abu Sayyaf.

While the Philippine Constitution from directly engaging in combat in the Philippines, some U.S. troops could visit combat zones and carry weapons for self defense while observing the Filipinos in action.

Reyes said the U.S. government also said it was willing to risk casualties and promised to allow the Philippine officers complete control of combat, even if Americans are under fire.

"In the event that somebody on their side would get injured, or worse, killed, first, they are willing to accept," Reyes told DZRH radio. "Second, to respond to the situation, the Philippine forces will be the ones in charge. They cannot tell us: Wait a minute, we want to pursue. The response will be by the Philippine forces, commanded by Filipino commanders. That is clear."

The aim of the U.S. training is to help eradicate the Abu Sayyaf. But the group has defied successive governments for 10 years in the jungle-covered mountains of the remote southern islands.

The Abu Sayyaf is holding missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham from Wichita, Kan., and Filipina nurse Deborah Yap after abducting them with scores of others in a kidnapping spree. Several hostages, including Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif., were killed in captivity. Others escaped or were freed for ransom.

The Abu Sayyaf has only about 800 fighters spread over two main southern islands, but it's a loosely knit federation of gangs that can escape by melting into the jungles or dropping weapons and blending into the local populace.

The guerrillas don't fight head-on, meaning that wiping out Abu Sayyaf — even with U.S. help — would be a lengthy task. Even before the start of the six-month exercise, the Philippine government is saying it may be extended to a year. And that much time in the jungle — making war on a guerrilla force — is a daunting prospect for those who remember Vietnam.

Thousands of Filipino troops have been battling the Abu Sayyaf on Jolo and Basilan islands since June, but with few victories. The rebels once escaped a tight military cordon and are better equipped after using tens of millions of dollars in ransoms to buy weapons and speedboats.

National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said the two governments are still deciding exactly what the Americans can do in combat areas.

Golez said fewer than 200 U.S. soldiers will be allowed into combat zones, split into groups of 12 for every 400 or so Filipinos. The Americans are to train Filipinos in night helicopter flying, psychological operations and intelligence work.