MANILA - The Philippine government is to triple the size of a special forces military unit that operates against Islamist militants responsible for deadly bombings and kidnappings of Westerners, officials said Tuesday.
The Light Reaction Battalion is to be built up to regiment size, Philippine Army chief Lieutenant-General Noel Coballes said, an increase from about 500 soldiers to as many as 1,500.
"We have seen how effective they are, so we are strengthening the unit in terms of anti-terrorism. From a battalion we'll increase it to a regiment," he said.
The unit is fighting the Abu Sayyaf, a group of several hundred Islamist militants who are behind the country's deadliest attacks as well as kidnappings of Western targets.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the battalion had taken substantial casualties during a three-week battle against gunmen in the southern port of Zamboanga in September last year.
The gunmen are followers of former rebel leader Nur Misuari, who went into hiding as hundreds of his men infiltrated Zamboanga to oppose a proposed peace treaty between the Philippine government and a rival Muslim guerrilla faction.
The fighting left more than 240 people dead and displaced about 116,000 people as entire districts of the city of nearly a million people went up in flames.
"As you have seen, we lost a number of our men in the Zamboanga incident, which led to a shortage that needed to be addressed," Gazmin said.
Neither official gave a timetable, but armed forces spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said the unit would be bulked up within the year.
"Based on what happened in Zamboanga, our military leadership saw a need to increase the strength of the Light Reaction Battalion to be able to address contingencies anywhere in the country," Zagala told AFP.
The United States has trained and equipped the battalion since 2002, to help its Asian ally fight the Islamist militants in the south of the mainly Catholic nation.