By JIM GOMEZ / AP WRITER
MANILA — The Philippine military has rejected a US government assessment that labeled the country's south as a terrorist safe haven, saying Tuesday that many foreign and local Islamic radicals have been captured and others are on the run from relentless offensives.
The US State Department reported last week in its annual assessment of worldwide terrorism that the southern Mindanao region, specifically predominantly Muslim Sulu province, remains a sanctuary for extremists—mostly from Indonesia—despite US-backed efforts to eliminate them.
The province and surrounding areas serve as "terrorist safe havens," the report said.
"The government's control in this area is weak due to rugged terrain, weak rule of law, poverty and local Muslim minority resentment of central governmental policies," the report said, saying the foreign militants belong to Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesia-based group linked to al-Qaida.
Philippine military spokesman Lt-Col Romeo Brawner disputed that assessment Tuesday, saying government troops have captured several foreign extremists and are hunting dozens who find it difficult to launch major attacks because they have to constantly dodge arrest. He said extremists have been forced to abort many terror plots, including planned bombings.
"We respect their view but we strongly disagree with that," Brawner said. "It's not a safe haven. They're not free to go in and out and commit atrocities."
Brawner acknowledged that several members of Jemaah Islamiyah, which has been blamed for a number of major bombings in Southeast Asia, continue to hide on Jolo—Sulu's jungle-clad main island—and outlying regions. But he said most have been identified, along with their networks of supporters.
US Ambassador Kristie Kenney said the kidnapping of three Red Cross aid workers by the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf extremist group in Sulu in January showed that terrorists continue to pose a threat in the region. The al-Qaida-linked group is holding at least seven hostages, including Italian Red Cross worker Eugenio Vagni.
"We have a terrible situation where terrorists have international humanitarian workers kidnapped. There is still work to be done on Jolo," she said.
Maj-Gen Benjamin Dolorfino, who heads the navy's 9,000-strong marines, said Muslim rebel groups have been a lifeline for foreign militants, giving them refuge during military manhunts.
"When we run after them, they flee to these rebel groups. It makes our work difficult," Dolorfino said.
The State Department commended Philippine troops for killing 35 terrorists and capturing 16 others in the first half of 2008, including two bomb-makers.
It said it added three Filipino extremists—Radulan Sahiron, Abdul Basit Usman and Khair Mundos—to its list of most-wanted terrorists last year. The reward for the capture of Sahiron, who is believed to be the Abu Sayyaf's new leader, has been increased to $1 million, it said.