Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Up to three of 10 American service personnel onboard a military helicopter that crashed into the sea in the southern Philippines early Friday have been rescued, but at least another three are believed dead.
The search by U.S. and Philippine military personnel continues. The Chinook MH-47 helicopter and those onboard were participants in a recently-opened six-month joint military exercise aimed at helping the Philippine Army destroy a terrorist group operating in the area.
A Philippine armed forces spokesman said the three survivors had been rescued by fishermen who had heard a loud explosion and seen the aircraft plunge into the sea.
Police reports that three bodies had washed up on the shore could not immediately be confirmed.
The helicopter was one of two that had been flying between Basilan island, where the exercise it being held, and an airbase further north which is temporary home to U.S. support and logistics staff.
A U.S. Pacific Command spokesman, Maj. Sean Gibson, said the cause of the crash was unknown. Earlier it was reported that there were 12 Americans onboard, but the Hawaii-based military command corrected the figure to 10 - eight crew and two others.
"The helicopter was operating in support of U.S. efforts to train and advise the armed forces of the Philippines in their efforts against global terrorism," Gibson said.
Hundreds of U.S. soldiers are in the country to participate in a joint military exercise aimed at eradicating the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), believed linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.
The group is holding American missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham hostage. The joint exercises are intended to train local troops in counter-terror measures, using the ASG gunmen as live targets - and hopefully to rescue the hostages, who are understood to be on Basilan island.
The crash occurred about 30 minutes before the helicopter was due to land at a Philippine base at Mactan, having taken off from Basilan, U.S. Pacific Command spokesperson Lieut.-Col. Marcella Adams said earlier.
About half of the 160 U.S. Special Forces troops due to deploy on Basilan for the maneuvers have already arrived on the island. Mactan base - the helicopter's destination when it crashed - will house around 250 U.S. support personnel during the six-month operation.
Adams said it was too early to say who the Americans onboard were, or from which branch of the armed forces.
"The difficulty we always have is - there's always a manifest that's prepared for any aircraft that travels. But to confirm that the folks that we said were on board in fact were onboard, we don't know until they've actually completed the search and recovery effort."
Washington's new ambassador to the Philippines, Francis Joseph Ricciardone, said in Manila Thursday the U.S. would strengthen joint efforts with the Philippines to stop al-Qaeda from spreading its tentacles into Southeast Asia.
"We're very concerned about the reach of terrorism globally and of course we're paying particular attention to its effects here, something the people of the Philippines live with," he said after presenting his credentials to President Gloria Arroyo.
"Terrorism is a problem for both of us. And your government is determined to deal with this issue. We're very proud that we're working so closely in dealing with this problem," he added.
Arroyo came under fire at home earlier this year for her decision to allow the U.S. troops to participate in the extended, live ammunition and live target exercise.
Although the U.S. forces are only meant to train and advise the Filipinos, confirmation by the government that the Americans would be armed and permitted to defend themselves if attacked upset critics who claimed the move impinged on their country's sovereignty.
The ASG, allegedly set up in the early 1990s with help and funding from bin Laden, claims to be fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines but has become notorious for brutal kidnapping-for-ransom operations.
The Burnhams, missionaries from Kansas, were kidnapped from a beach resort last May. A third American taken at the same time, California tourist Guillermo Sobero, was later found decapitated, as were some Filipinos taken from the resort. Nurse Deborah Yap was seized from a hospital several days after the original raid.
President Bush late last year promised Arroyo support in her government's fight against the ASG. Arroyo has been a firm supporter of Washington's campaign against terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks, for which the U.S. holds bin Laden responsible.
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