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MANILA, Philippines — Two U.S. soldiers were killed Tuesday in a roadside bomb believed planted by al-Qaida-linked militants, U.S. officials said. They were the first American troops to die in an attack in the Philippines in seven years.
A Filipino Marine also was killed and two others were wounded in the blast on Jolo island, a poor, predominantly Muslim region where the Americans have been providing combat training and weapons to Filipino troops battling the Abu Sayyaf militants. The Philippine military suspects the group was behind the attack.
A senior Filipino commander said he did not think the assault would shake the Americans' resolve to fight Muslim extremists in the country.
"I don't think they'll contemplate leaving," said Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino, a regional military commander who oversees counterterrorism assaults in Jolo and nearby regions. "Terrorism threats are transnational, and the U.S. has a very strong commitment to fight it here."
The U.S. embassy said in a statement that the soldiers' vehicle hit an improvised explosive device while they were conducting a resupply mission for a school construction project on Jolo.
TV footage showed the still-smoldering wreck of the Humvee, which flipped over in a grassy area in a coconut grove, apparently due to the impact of the powerful blast.
U.S. Maj. Bradley Gordon said two U.S. Army soldiers, who were members of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, were killed in the attack. Their names were not released while their families were notified.
Earlier, Philippine Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino said the Americans were from the Naval Construction Battalions, or Seabees, which gather skilled craftsmen like electricians and carpenters into special military units.
According to U.S. Pacific Command, the Seabees were working on a school project where this convoy originated from but no Seabees were involved in the attack.
Philippine military spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner said the troops were on their way to Kagay village in Jolo's Indanan township. Troops are building two school buildings and digging artesian wells in Indanan, where militants have jungle strongholds.
"They were not in combat," Brawner said. "These U.S. soldiers were there in the area to supervise the developmental projects in Indanan."
The Philippine government offered its condolences to the relatives of the slain troops and praised them for helping undertake civic projects and secure peace on Jolo, about 590 miles south of Manila, the capital.
Brawner said no suspects were immediately identified, but Dolorfino told AP that Abu Sayyaf had likely planted the explosive. The well-armed group is blamed for numerous bombings, beheadings and kidnappings of Filipinos and foreigners in the south in recent years.
He said U.S troops have long been targets for militants in the south. Two weeks ago, a suspected Abu Sayyaf militant or sympathizer hurled a grenade near U.S. troops unloading supplies at Jolo's pier. The group also killed a U.S. Marine with a nail-laden motorcycle bomb in nearby Zamboanga city in October 2002. U.S. counterterrorism troops were deployed to the region earlier that year.
Abu Sayyaf often attempts to sabotage U.S. projects, which include school building construction, he said.
"They know that once education sets in, the villagers will be well-informed and hard to fool and to recruit," Dolorfino said.
Abu Sayyaf is believed to have about 400 fighters, to have received funds from al-Qaida and is suspected of sheltering militants from the larger Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah.
An estimated 600 U.S. troops are currently stationed in the Philippines, mostly in the southern front lines of the Philippine military's operations against the Abu Sayyaf group and Jemaah Islamiyah.