US ready to end hostage crisis

PHILIPPINES NEWS SERVICE — The United States is ready to provide “assistance” to end the hostage crisis involving two European Red Cross volunteers, officials said.

“We stand ready to help our Philippine counterparts with whatever they might request, of course,” Thomas Gibbons, the US embassy’s deputy envoy and political affairs counsellor, told reporters at the opening ceremony of annual joint US-Philippine military maneuvers.

Gibbons said US forces will not take part in any direct combat missions, however.

About 6,000 US troops and some 2,500 Filipinos are involved in the two-week Balikatan exercises, which include field training exercises and humanitarian missions in the main island of Luzon and eastern Bicol region.

While the Philippines and the US are bound by a decades-old mutual defense treaty, foreign troops are prohibited from combat operations on domestic soil, Armed Forces chief General Alexander Yano said.

He noted that the US military had trained and equipped Filipino special forces against the Abu Sayyaf in the past, and the local troops were now capable of dealing with the insurgents on their own.

However, if there is a need for assistance, the Philippines may ask the US forces to provide “technical intelligence,” medical air evacuations and airlifting of equipment and transport.

“Other than that, as in the past, we have not utilized them for any direct combat action,” Yano said.

On Wednesday, the local crisis negotiating team on Jolo dispatched five Muslim clerics to the Abu Sayyaf lair in a last-ditch effort to convince them to hand over the hostages peacefully.