FIGHTING between soldiers and kidnappers engulfs Philippine town

Saturday, June 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LAMITAN, Philippines (AP) _ Philippine forces laid siege to a hospital where dozens of Muslim extremists were holed up with captives Saturday, blanketing the building with rockets and machine-gun fire to try to end a hostage crisis that has ballooned into a major battle on a rugged southern island.

Helicopter gunships fired at the hospital intermittently throughout the day as ground troops shot at the building from surrounding streets. Three of the 20 hostages seized by the Abu Sayyaf rebels were Americans. Witnesses reported spotting at least one American inside the hospital. four of the Filipino hostages escaped Saturday.

Officials said 40 to 60 Abu Sayyaf rebels were also holding doctors, nurses and patients in the hospital on Basilan island along with the original hostages, who were seized May 27 at a resort hundreds of miles away across the Sulu Sea.

``It appears we have encountered the main body of bandits,'' said Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan, a military spokesman. ``This is the scenario we wanted _ to fix them in one location. We have now ringed the place.''

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said the military would not stop until all hostages are released.

``We will finish off all the bandits if they don't surrender at the earliest possible time,'' Arroyo said in a radio address. ``To the Abu Sayyaf: You have nowhere else to run and it would be best for you to release those whom you've kidnapped. You're just one more bullet.''

The rebels eluded a massive search until they clashed with army forces in the rugged jungles of Basilan early Friday. The fighting then spread to the streets of Lamitan, and the military said seven soldiers were killed and 75 wounded in two days. Witnesses also saw guerrilla and civilian casualties.

Basilan provincial Gov. Wahad Akbar said four of the 17 Filipino hostages from the resort escaped, including an 8-year-old boy. At least one escaped hostage was injured. The whereabouts of the American hostages was unclear, but a witness said he saw one of them at the hospital.

Two of the Americans seized at the resort, Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., are Protestant missionaries who have lived in the Philippines since 1986. The third American was identified as Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif.

The hostages who escaped were flown to Manila to meet with the president. One of them, Reghis Romero, urged the Abu Sayyaf to give up.

``The only alternative to surrender is crushing annihilation,'' Romero said.

Adan said many of the hostages seized Sunday when rebels raided the Dos Palmas Island Resort on Palawan island were in the hospital or in other areas around Lamitan, about 280 miles southeast of the resort and 560 miles south of the capital, Manila.

An Abu Sayyaf leader, Abu Suleiman, claimed he took 200 hostages in Lamitan, which was sealed off by troops, but the military said only 20 were seized, including two priests in the hospital, which houses a church in the same building. Suleiman phoned RMN radio to say he that had taken control of the hospital and threatened to kill hostages unless the government called off its offensive.

Police tried to storm the one-story building at least three times Saturday, but were pushed back amid heavy gunfire. Several armored personnel carriers were standing by for a possible attempt to free the hostages. Dark fell with no end in sight to the fighting.

Rolly Adars, a Lamitan resident who was in the hospital when the Abu Sayyaf rebels seized it, said he escaped out a door along with six children. He said he saw one tall American man, guarded by guerrillas with rifles and grenade launchers, in the hospital.

Residents scurried around side streets, bending low to avoid sniper fire, while police and soldiers hid behind cover around the bullet-scarred hospital. Thousands of civilians fled the fighting, clogging roads leading out of Lamitan.

Cindy Balisado, 28, who owns a restaurant a block from the hospital, refused to evacuate the town and cheered the police on. Lamitan, the second largest town in the province of Basilan, with 15,000 inhabitants, is one of two Christian towns on the predominantly Muslim island.

``I hope they kill them all,'' Basilado said. ``I am not afraid. If you get frightened you will just give in to what the (Abu Sayyaf) want.''

She said fighting broke out around midnight Friday. A grenade exploded on her roof but caused no injuries, she said.

Bidong Ismael, a town councilor, told RMN that he saw one Abu Sayyaf leader, Commander Yusuf, killed along with one soldier and a militiaman in Lamitan.

The Abu Sayyaf, which claims to be fighting for a separate Muslim state, seized 10 foreign tourists about a year ago from a Malaysian resort, and most were released for millions of dollars in ransom. Arroyo has pledged to defeat the rebels.