Sister of American hostage appeals to Philippine kidnappers

Monday, January 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) _ With American troops preparing for counterterrorism exercises, the sister of an American hostage asked rebels Monday to release the Kansas couple they have held for eight months.

Mary Jones, sister of hostage Gracia Burnham, asked the Abu Sayyaf group to phone a Manila missionary office to discuss releasing Burnham and her husband, Martin, who are hostages on nearby Basilan island.

``We have no money for ransom,'' Jones said on Radio Mindanao Network in the southern city of Zamboanga. ``We are not a threat to anyone. Harming them will not solve anything and only deprive their children ...''

The Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, kidnapped the Burnhams; Corona, Calif., resident Guillermo Sobero; and 17 Filipinos from a beach resort in May.

They beheaded Sobero and some of the other hostages in June. The rest escaped or were released, reportedly for ransoms.

Jones' broadcast reached the jungles and remote villages of Basilan, about 12 miles from Zamboanga.

``I would like to make a personal appeal to leaders Abu Sabaya and (Khadafy) Janjalani and the rest of the Abu Sayyaf to please not harm Martin and Gracia,'' Jones said.

She also referred to a December interview with the Wichita, Kan., couple in which they described almost daily hikes through the jungle that left them weak and injured. Martin Burnham said he was chained to a tree every night to prevent his escape.

``We have seen their pictures on various news broadcast and we see how emaciated, tired and weak they are,'' Jones said. ``We are all very afraid of what might happen to Martin and Gracia. They have three children who are very frightened and need them very much.''

After making her appeal, Jones returned to Manila and met briefly with Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu, head of the southern Philippine military forces.

About 100 U.S. soldiers already are in Zamboanga and at least 500 more are expected in the next few weeks to train Filipino soldiers in fighting the Abu Sayyaf and rescuing the Burnhams. Some troops will arrive Monday, Philippine military officials said.

About 160 Army Special Forces will travel to Basilan and could enter combat zones to observe the Filipino troops. The Americans will be armed and allowed to defend themselves.

The training exercises will start Wednesday, Philippine military officials said.

The possibility of U.S. soldiers in combat has concerned leftist, Muslim and nationalist groups, who view that as a violation of constitutional restrictions against foreign combat troops on Filipino soil.

But President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said the public supports the exercise and any attempt to use the issue to destabilize her year-old administration would fail.

Protests have been held the past week at the U.S. Embassy and the presidential palace, but they have been small and limited to leftist groups that traditionally criticize Washington.

Activists hurled plastic packets of red paint at a U.S. Embassy seal Monday, but missed and hit several news photographers instead. Riot police kept the protesters away from the embassy.