US troops start front-line drill on Korean border
[Reuters, 21 Feb]
Thousands of US troops have begun major war games near the heavily fortified inter-Korean border to test their ability to defend against attacks from North Korea, US officials said.
They said the exercise would last until March 10 at a strategic point near the demilitarized zone which has divided the Korean peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War.
"Some 5,000 troops of the US Army's Second Infantry Division are taking part in the drill," a US military spokesman said Friday.
The 15,000-strong Second Infantry Division is headquartered in Dongducheon, 40 kilometers (24 miles) north of Seoul and straddling an invasion route used by the North Korean People's Army in 1950.
Some 37,000 US troops are stationed in South Korea under a mutual defense pact that was signed at the end of the Korean War.
The drill, called Iron ARTEP (Army Readiness Training and Evaluation Program), is aimed at "testing units' abilities to conduct wartime missions," said Major Curtis Roberts, spokesman for the Second Infantry Division.
"This is a semi-annual drill. It has nothing to do with current political or diplomatic situation," he said. "The main agenda of the drill is to test and evaluate units' abilities to conduct wartime missions."
"Nearly one-third of 15,000 soldiers assigned will be mobilized for the drill," he added.
ARTEP has been planned as a warm-up drill ahead of RSOI/FE 03, other US military officials said, referring to annual joint exercises to be staged by US and South Korean troops from March 4 to April 2.
RSOI-FE 03 focuses on a mock battle aimed at evaluating command capabilities and the deployment of US forces from abroad. A US aircraft carrier would be sent to waters around the Korean peninsula as part of those war games.
US officials have described the exercises as purely defensive, while North Korea routinely denounces military drills in South Korea as preparations for an invasion.
The Korean War ended in a fragile armistice and the Korean peninsula remains the world's last Cold War frontier with nearly two million troops ready for combat either side of the tense frontier.
1700 US TROOPS TO FIGHT IN PHILIPPINES
New York Times - 21 Feb:
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The United States will send more than 1,700 troops to the Philippines in the next few weeks to fight Muslim extremists in the southern part of the country, opening a new front in the fight against terrorism, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
A six-month training mission in the Philippines last year limited 1,300 U.S. troops, including 160 special forces soldiers, to an advisory role. But this mission will be a combat operation with no such restrictions on U.S. and Philippine troops serving side by side, military officials said.
Under the plan, about 750 ground troops, including 350 special operations forces, will conduct or support combat patrols in the jungles of Sulu Province. In addition, about 1,000 Marines, supported by Cobra attack helicopters and Harrier AV-8B attack planes, will stand ready aboard two ships offshore to act as a quick-response force and provide logistics and medical support. The first troops are expected to arrive within days, officials said. Maj. Gen. Joseph Weber, commander of the Third Marine Division, will lead the U.S. force.
The operation will last as long as necessary "to disrupt and destroy" the estimated 250 members of the extremist group Abu Sayyaf, one official said, adding that it marks a sharp escalation in the war against terror as the United States builds up for a possible war with Iraq and continues to hunt Al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
Philippine and U.S. officials said they agreed to begin the joint offensive now for several reasons. Negotiations between the countries have been on-going for months.
But Abu Sayyaf's repeated attacks and the bombing death of an American Green Beret last October spurred Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to work out an aggressive plan.
Dispatching U.S. commandos to the southern Philippines comes at a convenient moment for Pentagon officials, who have sought to show that the U.S. military can fight a war with Iraq and still carry out a global hunt for terrorists.
Arroyo has walked a political tightrope at home on the sensitive issue of welcoming U.S. military help to defeat a deadly foe.
She has said she is not running for reelection, which some diplomats said will make it easier for her to weather the political fallout from what is sure to be a contentious issue in the Philippines.
The Philippine constitution prohibits foreign troops from carrying out unilateral combat missions, but U.S. forces will technically play a supporting role in the Philippine-led operation, a distinction that may allow Arroyo and her supporters to skirt the legal issue. "It's something they will have to finesse," a senior U.S. official said.
The combat operation, which goes well beyond an ongoing set of training missions, reflects the Pentagon's growing concern that militant Islamic networks pose an increasing threat to Americans and U.S. interests in Southeast Asia.
"The Philippines have a terrorist problem and we have offered our assistance," a senior Pentagon official said Thursday. "Over time, that assistance takes different shapes and forms. The Philippines have invited us to expand our role with them."
The Bush administration has declared Abu Sayyaf a terrorist organization. A decade ago, when the group was founded with a goal to create an Islamic state, Osama bin Laden sent a brother-in-law to work with the group. He provided money and sought to arrange a merger between Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a much larger and more powerful group in the Philippines.
U.S. and Philippine intelligence officials have said the relationship never developed, and Abu Sayyaf degenerated into thugs who kidnapped for ransom.
The group kidnapped several Americans, including Martin and Gracia Burnham, missionaries from Kansas. Martin Burnham was killed during a botched rescue by Philippine soldiers on June 7. Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap also died; Gracia Burnham was wounded and has since returned to the United States.
Some U.S. officials believe that in recent months, Abu Sayyaf has established connections with Jemaah Islamiyah, a radical Islamic network that seeks establishment of an Islamic state across Southeast Asia.
A military assessment team, the vanguard of the larger combat force, is expected to arrive in the Philippines in the next few days, and the full force could be conducting combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf group within a month, a Pentagon official said.
As they have for months, the U.S. Navy will continue to fly regular P-3 reconnaissance missions over the Sulu Archipelago to provide badly needed intelligence to Philippine army forces and U.S. forces. Philippine officials will ultimately be responsible for the timing and scope of operations, but U.S. officials are expected to play an influential role in those decisions.