MANILA, Philippines - Demonstrators calling for US troops to withdraw from the Philippines protested the start of annual joint military exercises Monday, with hundreds of American troops heading to southern islands where al-Qaeda-linked militants operate.
The two-week drills -- called Balikatan, or "shoulder-to-shoulder" -- bring together 6,000 US and 2,000 Filipino troops at a time when Philippine forces are battling militants from the Abu Sayyaf and its allies from the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah terror network.
About 30 protesters from the left-wing coalition Bayan burned a US flag and chanted "US troops out now!" outside the gate of the military headquarters in Manila, where US Ambassador Kristie Kenney, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo and top military officials led the opening ceremony.
Rallies also were held in at least four southern cities to demand US troops leave because of alleged involvement in combat operations -- prohibited by Philippine law -- and human rights abuses, activists said.
In Cagayan de Oro, police estimated the crowd at 3,000, including priests and nuns who joined lawmakers and Muslim activists, although rally organizers said more than 5,000 joined the protest march.
Representatives Satur Ocampo and Liza Maza of the Bayan Muna and Garbriela partylist, respectively, led the protest march early Monday which had the city's traffic paralyzed for hours.
Disputing the government's claim that the holding of the Balikatan exercises was based on the provisions of the Visiting Forces Agreement, Ocampo said that there was no provision in the agreement allowing for successive military exercises.
"Continued or successive joint military exercises violate the Constitution and even the provisions of VFA. And as we see now, these are not even joint exercises but a one-sided conduct of civic actions by American troops," Ocampo said.
Maza also lambasted the government for allowing American troops to conduct civic action in the country, saying the humanitarian mission was just a cover.
"These humanitarian missions are just an excuse to allow US troops to enter our communities and pursue their real agenda of justifying their war against terrorism," she said.
Maza warned that the presence of US troops in Mindanao will lead to more human rights abuses, especially against women and children.
Nuns, priests, and students joined farmer's groups in the protest, bearing anti-US placards and chanting slogans calling President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo a terrorist.
In Davao City, around 3,000 protesters belonging to Bayan and the Out US Troops-Mindanao Coalition marched through the streets demanding the immediate pull-out of American soldiers from Mindanao.
Protests were also held in Pikit, North Cotabato, and Davao City.
Zainab Ampatuan, chair of the partylist Suara Bangsamoro (Voice of the Moro People), told the Philippine Daily Inquirer by phone that the contingent coming from Kidapawan City was harassed by government troops along the highway in Pagalungan town in Maguindanao.
"They accused us of failing to secure a permit from them. We were able to secure from the local government of Pikit," Ampatuan said.
She said that activists from Kidapawan City were forced to abandon their chartered vehicles and had to walk going to the venue of rally in the town proper of Pikit.
Ampatuan estimated the number of protesters in Pikit at 7,000.
"Instead of these exercises, we are calling the government to resume the peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. We fear that hostilities may happen considering that Philippines and US troops will hold their humanitarian missions in controlled areas of the MILF," Ampatuan said.
US troops will conduct medical missions and repair schools in Mindanao, where Muslim rebels have waged a decades-long separatist insurgency, US officials said.
The areas include Jolo island, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold, and central Mindanao, a base of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country's biggest separatist group, now holding peace talks with the government.
Tensions flared recently on Jolo after villagers accused the military of killing seven civilians and an off-duty soldier during operations to hunt down suspected terrorists.
Rawina Wahid, whose husband was killed in the raid early this month, said she was tied up and put on a naval boat with several US soldiers on board.
President Arroyo has ordered an investigation into the deaths. Last week, US Embassy spokeswoman Rebecca Thompson denied American soldiers took part in any combat operations.
Military chief General Hermogenes Esperon said the emphasis of the exercises, which have been held since 1981, has shifted to humanitarian assistance, part of efforts to win over local Muslim populations.
America's soft counterterrorism approach here has won praise in contrast to mounting criticism of US-led incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A manhunt continues on Jolo for Abu Sayyaf commanders and two top Indonesian militants wanted for alleged involvement in the 2002 nightclub bombings that killed 202 people on Indonesia's Bali island.
The Abu Sayyaf, blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organization, has been blamed for deadly bomb attacks, beheadings and high-profile kidnappings, including of Americans.
With Reports from Charlie C. SeÃƒÆ’±ase, Jeffrey M. Tupas, Jeoffrey Maitem, Richel V. Umel and Ma. Cecile Rodriguez, Inquirer Mindanao
© 2008 Associated Press