Canberra offers to train troops in the Philippines
MANILA, Aug 25 (Reuters) Australia has offered to send military trainers to the Philippines to coach troops fighting Muslim militants as the two countries move closer to signing a military pact, Canberra's ambassador said.
Since 2002, Canberra and Manila have been holding informal talks to sign a status of forces agreement that would allow Australian troops to train with Filipino troops in the southern Philippines, a base for foreign and local Muslim rebels.
''We won't be conducting exercises in the area,'' Tony Hely, Australia's ambassador, said at a reception for journalists late on Thursday night in Manila. ''It's more of capacity building, training and policy advice.'' Hely said Canberra and Manila hoped to finalise in two months the text of the military pact that could be ratified by the two countries by June next year.
The Philippine constitution bars foreign troops from going into combat. But at any one time, there are up to 300 U S military personnel advising local soldiers on how to ensnare Muslim extremists in the largely Roman Catholic country.
Like Washington, Canberra is anxious to prevent Muslim extremists from using the Philippines' remote southern islands as bases to plot attacks in the region and already provides annual training for about 60 Filipino soldiers in Australia.
After the United States, Canberra was the second largest provider of defence and counter-terrorism assistance at 10.2 million dollars in 2006.
Hely said his government was also donating equipment to help Manila improve its counter-terrorism operations in the south, giving the army three flat-bottomed river boats to navigate the marshy areas on the southern island of Mindanao.
The Philippines, which spends around a third of its annual budget on interest payments, is reliant on overseas military aid to help fight long-running Muslim and communist insurgencies.
Australia has been expanding security cooperation with Southeast Asian states since the 2002 Bali bombings and the Philippines and Indonesia have been the main beneficiaries of Canberra's military assistance programme.
Apart from security aid, Australia was also planning to spend nearly A million this year to help develop communities in southern Philippines infiltrated by extremists.
REUTERS KR HT1555