Manila – Cooperation on anti-terror and security efforts will be on the top of the agenda during talks between Australia Defence Minister Robert Hill and Philippine officials this week. Mr Hill's visit, the second by a senior Australian official in recent days, comes amid reports that elite Australian troops are involved in actual pursuit operations against Jemaah Islamiah (JI) militants in Mindanao.
Last week, Major-General Mike Hindmarsh, chief of Australia's special forces, travelled to Zamboanga City to talk with the top brass of the Southern Command, the military's main base in Mindanao.
Armed Forces spokesman Lt-Col Buenaventura Pascual has denied the reports of Australian troops' involvement, citing a constitutional prohibition against the participation of foreign troops in Philippine military operations unless covered by a treaty.
However, the Australian government has admitted that it has deployed some of its anti-terrorism policemen in the Philippines to provide technical support to their local counterparts.
In an interview with the Australian newspaper, Sun, Mr Hill noted that Australia had expanded its counter-terrorist training with several Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. However, the Philippines had received only limited special forces training.
"We think we should expand that. Their (Philippines') principal partner in terms of capability growth through training has been the United States," the Sun quoted Mr Hill as saying.
He said the Australian government is offering more special forces training to develop the Philippines' counter-terrorist capability.
According to The Manila Times, Australia has emerged as a key player in the campaign to flush out terrorists hiding in the southern Philippines.
"Australia has projected itself as the terrorists' biggest nemesis in the Southeast Asian region. Its anti-terrorist crusade has deep, personal roots: A majority of the more than 200 people who died in the Bali bombings in 2003 were Australians," the newspaper said in an editorial.
It noted that the Philippines and Australia established defence ties way back in 1995.
"But it was only eight years later, when terrorist attacks became more brazen and deadly, that the two signed agreements on fighting terrorism and transnational crime. The pace of collaboration has been stepped up after bombs once again rocked Bali earlier this month," The Times said.
* Hunt for JI camps tops agenda of RP-Australia talks (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Oct 17)
* Uneasy partners against terrorism (The Manila Times, Oct 17)