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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Buildup In Philippines

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines -- The United States flew in more troops and equipment to the southern Philippines on Thursday for joint military exercises aimed at battling Muslim insurgency.

The troops, wearing combat fatigues and some carrying assault rifles, arrived hours after eight Muslim rebels were killed nearby in a clash with the local military.

The local military commander said two soldiers were wounded in Wednesday's clash on Basilan island with Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, a rebel group better known for its beheadings and kidnappings and which authorities have linked to Osama bin Laden.

Fighting continued Thursday and the clashes are bound to raise fresh questions on the advisability of holding exercises with U.S. troops on Basilan and in the nearby city of Zamboanga.

The controversy raged at a hearing of the Senate in Manila.

An opposition leader said he was certain U.S. troops were in the country to fight the Abu Sayyaf, violating constitutional provisions barring foreign troops from a combat role.

He said Manila's protestations that they were there only to train Philippine troops was "a grand deception".

A U.S. diplomat sought to allay fears the Basilan exercises might lead to an indefinite U.S. military presence. "We are not staying any longer than we are welcome. We have absolutely no intention of establishing a presence here," he said.

A total of about 65 U.S. troops are already in Zamboanga, the headquarters of the southern military command, and some 650, including 150 special forces, are likely to be there when the exercises get under way next week.