Thursday, August 31, 2006

US Troops Get Warm Welcome In Jolo

Muslims in Jolo island during a joint RP-US military humanitarian mission Wednesday 30 Aug 2006. (Mindanao Examiner)

Lt. Col. Jim McAllister. (Mindanao Examiner video)

JOLO ISLAND (Mindanao Examiner / 30 Aug) Hundreds of Muslim villagers, many children and women, greeted US and RP soldiers Wednesday as they distribute humanitarian aid in least two towns in Jolo island torn by fighting between security and Abu Sayyaf forces.

The crowd cheered as the soldiers drove in a convoy of trucks, armored and jeeps to Indanan town, scene of fierce battle since last month. “They are here, they are here, the Americans are here, yeah, welcome Joe,” a teenager shouted, as he flashed a victory sign while the convoy passed.

US troops in full battle gear were untiringly waiving and smiling to the huge crowd as if they had come back from war. “Wow, this is great. The people are friendly and warm. We love them,” one US soldier, said.

Timhar Aluk, a farmer, said he brought along his 7 children and two wives, just to see the American soldiers in person.

American and Filipino soldiers were in Indanan town and they distributed school bags and other supplies to children and women. Senior military and government officials also held a ground breaking ceremony signaling the start of P52-million development projects on the island.

“We heard a lot of good things about the white men. They give medicines and build school and renovate mosques in our land, they say; and they are also active in humanitarian works. We hope they would stay here much longer because we need them to help us and fight the bad people up there in the mountains, the Abu (Sayyaf),” he said.

Soldiers distributing school supplies were overwhelmed by cheering children. Some soldiers even told fairytale stories to the young and the old alike. “We are here to help the people,” said Lt. Col. Mike Halbig, of the US Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTFP).

Before coming to Indanan, the soldiers, accompanied by the governor of the island Benjamin Loong, inaugurated the area coordination center in Panamao town. A US helicopter also unloaded fresh humanitarian supplies, including sewing machines donated by the Yokohama International Baptist Church in Japan.

“Now that the AFP has assured the security in western Sulu, we can commence these critically needed quality of life improvements for the people of Sulu,” said Col. James Linder, commander of JSOTFP.

In March, a suspected Jemaah Islamiya bomb exploded inside a three-storey Jolo cooperative marketplace, killing five people and wounding 22 others. The US military is now helping in the renovation of the building, Linder said.

“Thousands of citizens will benefit from new roadways, wells, schools and medical center improvements, and the renovation of the Jolo cooperative marketplace,” he said.

Two more area coordination centers will also start construction in the town of Indanan. The centers, funded by the US Pacific Command, offer the community a place for livelihood training, community gatherings and communication hubs.

“It is an exciting time in Sulu. The deserving people of Sulu have chosen peace and prosperity for their future and a better life for themselves and their children. The people see how prosperity can thrive in an environment when it is safe from threat of transnational terrorists.”

“This development will bring jobs, better educational opportunities and better medical care for these communities, something the Abu Sayyaf group and the JI cannot offer,” Linder said.

Lt. Col. Jim McAllister said more projects are underway to help bring back peace on the island. “The people have distanced themselves from the lawless and terrorist elements that once lived in their communities,” he said.

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