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Manila rules out combat for U.S. troops

DAVAO, Philippines — U.S. troops will not be allowed to fight Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines, the nation's president said Wednesday, a day after a terrorist bombing in the region killed 21 people, including an American missionary.

Authorities said they have detained nine people, including five suspected Muslim militants, for questioning in Tuesday's blast at Davao airport on Mindanao island. The bombing — the nation's worst terrorist attack in three years — also injured 148 people.

The bombing came amid debate over the role of U.S. troops in anti-terrorism efforts in the Philippines, where Muslim insurgents, including a group believed linked to al-Qaida, have battled the government for decades.

"We welcome their assistance. They have always said that they will help us in any way we want them to help us," President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said of U.S. troops. "I have always said that as a matter of policy I just draw the line at ground combat where I want our soldier to do the fighting and not their soldiers."

U.S. troops currently train Philippine forces but do not engage in combat. U.S. defense officials announced last month they had an agreement to deploy more than 1,000 troops on the nearby island of Jolo to launch joint operations that could draw them into combat. But the offensive was put on hold after the Philippines balked, saying its constitution bars foreign troops from fighting in the country.

Arroyo said fighting on the ground would be done "by our soldiers, but help on surveillance, help on hardware, help on training, providing light in night battles, all of those can be allowed."

The Muslim extremist group that U.S. officials want to pursue is the Abu Sayyaf, which is notorious for kidnappings and killings and has been linked to Osama bin Laden's terror network.

Although an Abu Sayyaf spokesman on Wednesday reportedly claimed responsibility for the bombing in comments to ABS-CBN TV network, officials suspected Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels were behind the attack.

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said the comments may be a ploy concocted by the MILF and Abu Sayyaf. "In other words, the MILF is asking the ASG to own up to this dastardly act so that it would retain whatever respectability it still has."

President Bush condemned the attack as a "wanton terrorist act" and sent his condolences, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

Susan Madrid, spokeswoman for the Davao civil defense, said 21 people were killed and 148 were injured, including 11 who have not yet been identified. She said two of the injured died overnight.

Police said the bomb was hidden inside a backpack planted in the middle of the airport's waiting area.

Missionary William P. Hyde, 59, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, died in surgery from head and leg injuries, the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board confirmed. He had gone to the airport to meet other American missionaries who had just arrived when the bomb went off.

"I just heard it explode to my side," said Barbara Wallis Stevens, 33, one of the missionaries, who was slightly wounded. "I was carrying my infant son so I grabbed my daughter and picked her up and ran away. I was afraid there could be more bombs."

Her 10-month-old son Nathan was hit by shrapnel in the liver, but a doctor at Davao Medical Center said he was out of danger.

Arroyo arrived Wednesday in Davao on Mindanao island to visit the bombing site, where earlier workers had used brushes to clean blood stains from the damaged airport terminal. Arroyo lit a candle and placed a peach-colored rose in the shallow crater gouged out by the blast.

Interior Secretary Jose Lina said that five Moro members were detained and were being questioned in connection with the bombing.

Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said nine people were arrested on Wednesday. It wasn't clear if they include the five suspected rebels.

Duterte also said while he earlier opposed the deployment of U.S. troops, now "I would welcome any help from anybody to put an end to terrorism."

On Wednesday, police said a homemade bomb went off inside a department store in Cotabato City, 105 miles west of Davao, causing no casualties, but setting fire to clothes and panicking shoppers.

In another incident, police said they recovered two improvised bombs at a Shell gas station in Kauswagan in Lanao del Norte province on Tuesday. There were no suspects in either incident.

The military has blamed Moro rebels for a string of attacks, including a car bombing at nearby Cotabato airport last month that killed one man.

U.S. Special Forces instructors are training Philippine soldiers in counterterrorism tactics in the city of Zamboanga, about 250 miles west of the scene of Tuesday's attack.

Eid Kabalu, spokesman for the rebel group, which has been fighting for Muslim self-rule in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines for more than three decades, denied his group was responsible.

Kabalu, the rebel spokesman, said the explosions "might be a plot of the military" to extend the planned U.S.-Philippines exercises to Mindanao island.

Five almost simultaneous bomb blasts in Manila on Dec. 30, 2000, killed 22 people and wounded more than 100 others. In October, one U.S. soldier and two other people were killed in a bombing attack in Zamboanga.