PHILIPPINE military officials search for hostages

Wednesday, May 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ Troops scouring dozens of islets in the southern Philippines narrowed their search Wednesday, chasing Muslim extremists before they reached one of their main bases with 20 hostages, including three Americans.

Marines recovered some of the hostages' belongings on the island of Cagayan de Tawi Tawi, indicating that the hostages were taken there at least briefly by the Abu Sayyaf separatist group, said military spokesman Brig. Gen Edilberto Adan.

``We have recovered one Olympus camera and an ATM card belonging to one of the hostages. Our forces are still operating and this narrows down our search area,'' Adan told reporters.

He said the hostages _ three Americans and 17 Filipinos _ were taken to the island immediately after their abduction from a resort Sunday. The information was given by two fishermen who fled the group after they were abducted as guides during the raiders' escape.

Philippine forces hoped to prevent the rebels from reaching their base on Jolo island, keep the group intact and mount a rescue operation, Adan said. Cagayan de Tawi Tawi lies between the Palawan island group, where the hostages were seized, and the Jolo island group.

Abu Sayyaf claimed it split the hostages into two groups and took them to separate provinces. The rebels have threatened to kill their captives, particularly the Americans, if such a rescue attempt is launched.

Earlier Wednesday, Adan warned that the offensive ``would be a complex operation,'' and could lead to casualties

``This operation is not risk-free. There will be casualties, but we will avoid any harm that may befall the hostages,'' Adan said.

Michael Malinowski, charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Manila, said after meeting with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that both sides were talking about possible cooperation.

The Abu Sayyaf, which claims to be fighting for a separate Muslim state in this predominantly Roman Catholic country, seized 10 foreign tourists 13 months ago from a Malaysian resort. Most were released for large ransoms, reportedly paid by Libya.

That hostage saga dragged on for months, costing the once-thriving tourism industry millions of dollars and undercutting investor confidence in one of the region's slowest-growing economies.

The group has used the ransoms to acquire more advanced equipment, such as high-speed boats and high-tech communications equipment.

``These terrorists have brought nothing but shame to our country in the eyes of the world,'' Adan said.

Arroyo on Tuesday vowed to wipe out the group, which has killed hostages in the past, including two teachers beheaded last year after the government mounted a series of military offensives.

Adan reiterated the government's offer of $2 million in rewards for the capture of Abu Sayyaf leaders and members.

Abu Sabaya, the group's spokesman, has said that this group of hostages would be treated differently from the last captive who was freed. He said Jeffrey Schilling, of Oakland, Calif., was not seriously harmed during his eight months in captivity because he was a Muslim convert.

Two of the Americans seized Sunday from the Dos Palmas Island 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.