American missionary couple held by Muslim extremists long for children, freedom

Monday, November 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ A pair of terrified American missionaries, held hostage by Muslim extremists for six months, said in a videotape aired Monday that they long to rejoin their children.

The one-minute tape recorded Sunday showed Gracia and Martin Burnham surrounded by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas with heavy weaponry. It was the first video shown of the Wichita, Kan., couple since they were abducted May 27 while celebrating their wedding anniversary at a tourist resort.

More than 7,000 Filipino soldiers have been deployed in southern Basilan island to rescue the Americans and wipe out the guerrillas, who have been linked in the past to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.

``This is a tragedy,'' Gracia said, trying to suppress sobs as she talked. Wearing a white Muslim-style head covering, she looked frightened and her eyes were swollen.

Her heavily bearded husband, who had lost considerable weight, appeared more composed as he worried about their children.

``My parents, I know, and my brothers and sisters ... they're surrounding my children with love, but there's no substitute for parents, and we would like to be there,'' he said.

``I believe God gave parents their children not only to bring them into the world but to give them guidance (until) they grow up,'' he said.

The interview was apparently conducted in the jungle because of the thick foliage and loud sounds of crickets. The large barrel of an artillery piece was visible beside Martin Burnham's head as the camera panned.

The Americans were interviewed by freelance journalist Arlyn de la Cruz as a crew from local cable television channel Net 25 filmed. De la Cruz said the interview was conducted Sunday on Basilan.

Net 25 said it would air a longer version of the interview later Monday. It said the Americans appealed to the U.S. government to negotiate for their safe release.

Other footage showed Abu Sayyaf leaders Khaddafy Janjalani and Abu Sabaya, who bragged that the massive military offensive has caused only limited rebel casualties and failed to kill the gang's leaders.

Sabaya earlier claimed to have executed a third American, Guillermo Sobero, of Corona, Calif. His remains were found last month.

Military officials have said the Abu Sayyaf has been decimated by the offensive and only about 100 guerrillas have survived by constantly running away instead of engaging troops on Basilan, about 545 miles south of Manila.

The United States is donating night-vision goggles, helicopters and guns to the effort.

The guerrillas claim they are Muslim independence fighters, but the government regards them as a band of criminals out to make money off ransoms. The Burnhams were among three Americans and scores of Filipinos seized by the rebels in a kidnapping spree that began in May.

Only the Burnhams and a Filipino nurse remain in the rebels' hands.

Another American, Jeffrey Schilling, was seized by the guerrillas last year after he traveled to an Abu Sayyaf camp on Jolo island, near Basilan. Schilling, of Oakland, Calif., escaped after almost eight months in captivity.