Manila Says US Forces Planned
Botched Rescue Mission
Straits Times

MANILA - There appears to be a dispute over the United States' role in the botched rescue operation of hostages, with Manila insisting that the US had prior knowledge.

However, Washington has maintained that it first learned of the operation after it was informed of the death of an American missionary.

Philippines Defence Secretary Angelo Reyes said that US forces helped plan the operation in the southern Philippines that ended in the death of the missionary and a Filipina captive.

Contradicting the Pentagon's version of Friday's bloody rescue attempt, Mr Reyes said the Americans 'participated in the planning and the execution in terms of advice and intelligence reports, and in the training of our soldiers' who carried out the mission.

Christian missionary Martin Burnham, 42, and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap were slain, while Burnham's wife, Gracia, 43, was wounded in the leg but rescued. A Filipino farm hand the rebels used as a guide and porter was also rescued.

The operation ended a 376-day hostage drama that drew 1,000 US military advisers and engineers to the separatist-plagued south for a six-month campaign to help local troops stamp out the Abu Sayyaf guerilla group, described as a local ally of the Al-Qaeda terror network.

'The fighting was done by Filipino soldiers, but in the conduct of the rescue and recovery mission the Americans actively participated,' Mr Reyes told reporters.

'We cannot overemphasise the importance of the American contribution,' he told local radio earlier yesterday.

He said Major-General Glicerio Sua, the head of the Philippine military task force, was 'joined by an American in the planning and supervision' of 'Operation Daybreak' by 500-600 Filipino troops. He did not identify the US official.

US troops and aircraft later helped evacuate casualties, he added.

Earlier, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the US military first learned of the operation when the Filipino military announced Martin Burnham's death and refused to criticise the operation.

'When something does not go perfectly there are always a lot of people running around who say this, who say that. I'm not one of those,' he said.

The US commander in the Philippines, Brigadier-General Donald Wurster, said that the Filipino rescuers operated under 'difficult circumstances' and that the US contingent 'supports' the actions they took.

Asked about the US role in planning the operation, he said: 'I wouldn't care to comment on the specifics.'

Foreign troops are barred from combat in Philippine territory. Under the terms of the exercise that ends on July 31, the US advisers are allowed to carry firearms but could only use them in self-defence.

Mr Reyes said the operation began on May 27, the anniversary of the Burnhams' abduction from a western Philippines island resort, but before the US government announced a US$5 million (S$9 million) bounty on the heads of the top five Abu Sayyaf leaders. --AFP

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