Saturday, August 24, 2002 Back The Halifax Herald Limited
Pat Roque / The Associated Press
Government soldiers inspect different types of explosives Friday on Jolo island in the southern Philippines. Military leaders gave civilian officials five days to negotiate with the captors of four Jehovah's Witnesses.
Kidnappers under gun
Soldiers to take drastic action if talks to release hostages fail in Philippines
By The Associated Press
Jolo, Philippines - Military leaders gave civilian officials on a remote island five days to negotiate with the captors of four Jehovah's Witnesses on Friday and said they were preparing a "killer punch" if the talks fail.
Military Chief of Staff Gen. Roy Cimatu said officials from Patikul town, on the southern island of Jolo, were trying to reach the kidnappers' hideout to demand the unconditional release of the remaining hostages. Two others were beheaded.
But he said an elite, U.S.-trained military unit was flying to the island Friday to back about 6,000 soldiers already fanning out in preparation for an assault that could come any time starting early next week.
"I would like to emphasize that we're putting more muscle into this operation," said Cimatu during a visit to Jolo island, about 960 kilometres south of Manila.
Two male and four female Jehovah's Witnesses were snatched as they sold Avon cosmetics and herbal teas near Patikul on Tuesday. The men's severed heads were later found in an open-air market in Jolo town, the island's capital, with notes urging Muslims to kill Christians and Jews.
The military, police and civilian officials originally blamed the Abu Sayyaf, a radical Muslim guerrilla group targeted by a six-month U.S.-Philippine military campaign that ended three weeks ago.
The officials, who recently declared the Abu Sayyaf decimated, backtracked and now say the kidnappers are opportunistic drug addicts in the Muslim rebel stronghold of Patikul seeking quick cash.
The kidnapping has been a huge embarrassment for the military and the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Central Bank Governor Rafael Buenaventura said it largely sparked a slide in the peso to a 12-month low against the U.S. dollar Friday.
Military officials estimated about 150 Abu Sayyaf rebels are on Jolo, including dozens who fled military assaults on the nearby island of Basilan.
Those assaults, which involved 1,200 U.S. Green Beret trainers, military engineers and support staff, ended last month, although a few American soldiers stayed behind to finish infrastructure projects.
Lt. Gen. Ernesto Carolina, head of military forces in the south, said the U.S.-trained Light Reaction Company was to fly to Jolo on Friday and provide a "killer punch" to the operation.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said reports suggested the Abu Sayyaf was involved in the kidnapping.
"The United States strongly condemns this latest terrorist atrocity by this murderous Abu Sayyaf group," Reeker said.
The Abu Sayyaf has often kidnapped for ransom, but more frequently has abducted poor Filipinos, mostly Christians, for slave labour. Kidnapped women are sometimes forced to marry guerrillas. All four remaining hostages are female.
On May 27, 2001, Abu Sayyaf rebels raided a tourist resort and abducted three Americans and 17 Filipinos.
Days later, the gang beheaded Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif. They also beheaded several Filipino hostages.
That kidnapping saga ended on June 7 when U.S.-trained Philippine soldiers tracked down the rebels.
They rescued American missionary Gracia Burnham, but her husband Martin and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap were killed in the raid.
Edited by - Crystal on 24 August 2002 23:11:56