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U.S. task force officials deployed to the jungles of the southern Philippines say despite some recent violence, years of military support and humanitarian aid are paying off in the fight against Islamic terrorist groups such as Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiya.

"The security situation in the southern Philippines has improved dramatically," especially in the past two years, Maj. Ken Hoffman, a spokesman for the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines, said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes on Monday.

Abu Sayyaf has dwindled from over 1,000 members to less than 300 since a major Philippine army offensive killed top leadership in 2007, Hoffman said.

Meanwhile, the frequency and lethality of attacks has decreased since 2007, he said.

The Abu Sayyaf "central leadership has been severely disrupted and appears financially strapped as evidenced by several recent kidnappings for ransom," Hoffman wrote.

However, the southern Philippines have been hit in recent months with kidnappings for ransom, including an abduction last week of two telecom workers that was blamed on Muslim extremists.

Both Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiya operate in the southern Sulu Archipelago of the Philippines and are listed as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. Department of State.

As part of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, a Pacific outpost in the global war against terrorism, the U.S. deploys special operations personnel to advise and assist Filipino security forces who battle the Muslim militants. U.S. servicemembers are not allowed to take part in combat but do operate in areas that are hot with guerrilla activity, officials say.

Lt. Dennis J. Riordan, a Navy special warfare Seabee, was flying to a Philippine marine base to survey the area for future upgrades in December when his helicopter came under fire and Riordan was wounded, the Navy Special Warfare Command Group One reported.

For his injuries and service, Riordan was awarded the Purple Heart during a May ceremony in Coronado, Calif. He was the second servicemember to receive the medal for OEF-Philippines.

Army Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class Mark W. Jackson was killed while serving in the Philippines in 2002 and posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, according to the Navy.

Hoffman said the U.S. effort is starting to pay off through an increasingly professional and effective Philippine national security force. Guerrillas ambushed and beheaded a group of Philippine marines in July 2007 and instead of responding with violence, the marines waged a humanitarian offensive in the area, according to Hoffman. In April, the Armed Forces of the Philippines conducted an artillery strike in Sulu that destroyed an Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah camp but first coordinated the strike with local leaders and residents to avoid public protest, he said.

Southern Philippine governments have created economic development plans, banned weapons and private militias and instituted identification card systems, Hoffman said.

U.S. humanitarian missions provide medical care and disaster relief to the country. About 25,000 Filipinos received medical treatment from the USNS Mercy, which visited the country this year, according to the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines. In the past year, the U.S. military provided more than $6.5 million for 70 humanitarian projects on Jolo, according to the task force.

Hoffman said the U.S. must accomplish four goals in the Philippines — deny sanctuary to terrorist groups such as Abu Sayyaf, eliminate the ability of those groups to move freely, deny them access to resources and separate them from the population.

"We won’t get there without first eliminating the conditions that give rise to terrorism," Hoffman said. "If you reduce poverty, create opportunities for education, commerce, livelihood and development, eventually the people will isolate the terrorists."


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