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U.S. to Leave Philippines Despite Hostage Situation

May 27, 2002

U.S. to Leave Philippines Despite Hostage Situation


ISABELA, Philippines -- Most U.S. military forces in the southern Philippines, the largest Pentagon deployment outside Central Asia in the war against terrorism, will leave this summer even though an Islamic extremist group linked to Al Qaeda continues to operate in the region, according to U.S. and Philippine government officials.
About 660 troops, including 160 Special Forces soldiers, were sent early this year to support a long-stalled Philippine military effort to crush Abu Sayyaf guerrillas and free three hostages, including American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham. The Kansas couple were kidnapped from a nearby resort a year ago today.

Abu Sayyaf, which spouts Islamic fundamentalist ideology but lives mainly off a lucrative kidnap-for-ransom business, last July beheaded a third American hostage, Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif. The failure to eliminate the group, a botched ransom effort and reports that the Burnhams are in poor health have combined to dampen the optimism that greeted the Green Berets in January. With their high-tech surveillance equipment and superior weaponry, the U.S. forces boosted morale among both the Philippine military and much of the war-weary civilian population.

Now the Philippine experience has become more of a cautionary tale. Here, as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the war against terrorism is also a battle against poverty, rampant government corruption and a fierce resistance to central authority that has endured for generations.

Officially, the Green Berets, Marines, Navy Seabees and other U.S. forces were sent to train, advise and support about 3,500 Philippine combat troops trying to hunt down about 100 Abu Sayyaf rebels on the southern island of Basilan.

Announcing the deployment late last fall, as well as $100 million in military aid to Manila, Bush administration officials said Abu Sayyaf had links to Al Qaeda and called the Philippines an important new front in the global war on terrorism. Indonesian national Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, a prominent member of the Southeast Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiah, which has been tied to Al Qaeda, was arrested in Manila. Other militants have taken shelter among the country's minority Muslim population, mainly in the south.

But the administration's program immediately ran afoul of Philippine domestic politics and fell behind schedule. Nationalist politicians, including the Philippines' vice president, Teofisto Guingona, fought to limit the U.S. military's role. American soldiers were never allowed to join combat patrols hunting for Abu Sayyaf fighters, the group's headquarters or the American hostages.

Officials said last week that the six-month deployment of U.S. troops will end as planned July 31, however, and that most U.S. troops will withdraw whether or not the Burnhams are freed or Abu Sayyaf is eliminated.

A small group of military engineers who arrived on Basilan in April may stay on to help improve wells, roads and an airstrip.

"Obviously we're impatient to see the Burnhams released ... but the fact is we have methodical program and time management to help improve the capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines," U.S. Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone Jr. said in an interview. "It [the exercise] seems to be on time and proceeding well."

But some challenge that positive view and question what U.S. involvement here has achieved.

"It's a travesty that they [the U.S. Special Forces] could come and go with Martin and Gracia still in captivity," said Robert Mycell, a Manila-based spokesman for the Burnhams' employers, the New Tribes Mission of Sanford, Fla. "This will be very difficult for people to understand."

Missing Ransom Remains a Puzzle

But so is a $300,000 ransom attempt that apparently went awry. Martin Burnham's father, Paul, is believed to have organized the ill-fated payoff in March, but the money has disappeared. The elder Burnham has consistently refused to address questions about ransom payment, stating only that Abu Sayyaf had reneged on a deal that would have freed his son and daughter-in-law.

According to those familiar with the deal, local police contacts were supposed to pass the ransom money to an Abu Sayyaf spokesman named Sahinon Hapilon, better known publicly as Abu Sulaiman.

But Sulaiman, the brother of Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf commander believed to be holding the three hostages, insisted to associates that he never received the ransom.

In the weeks since, suspicion has fallen just about everywhere--on the Philippine national police, on Philippine army officers angry at being cut out of the original deal, on other factions in Abu Sayyaf and on Sulaiman himself, who was killed this month in a police shootout in the western Mindanao city of Zamboanga.

Parouk Hussin, governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which includes Basilan, claimed to have knowledge that the money was actually passed to Abu Sayyaf couriers. But he also said Sulaiman told him personally that he had received nothing.

"The consensus is that if ransom was paid, it went to the wrong people," Mycell said, noting that the debacle is something the Burnham family "won't talk about, even with us."

It's unclear how much FBI officials or others at the U.S. Embassy in Manila who focus on the Burnham case knew about or helped facilitate the ransom plan. Embassy officials, happy to discuss most issues related to the anti-terrorism campaign, refused to address the incident.

In Washington, a House staffer who is familiar with the U.S. military deployment said the Bush administration had "acquiesced" to the ransom plan in an apparent exception to its efforts to cut off funds to terrorist groups.

Abu Sayyaf, which means "bearer of the sword," was founded in 1992 by Abdujarak Abubakar Janjalani, a young zealot who attended Islamic schools in Libya and Saudi Arabia and is believed to have joined Afghan rebels during the 1980s war against Soviet forces.

Muslim insurgencies have raged and waned for several hundred years in the southernmost Philippines. Abu Sayyaf claims to be fighting for an independent Muslim state in this predominantly Roman Catholic country and recently has sought to publicly align itself with other Islamic extremist groups opposed to the West.

Group Shunned for Being Un-Islamic

But Abu Sayyaf is more widely seen as a vicious criminal gang in a largely lawless region. It is officially shunned by other, larger Islamic separatist organizations in the southern Philippines, who reject the group's tactics of kidnapping for ransom and beheading victims as un-Islamic.

Its factions reportedly have raised millions of dollars in recent years by kidnapping foreign tourists and others for hefty ransoms. Some Philippine officials say the group has funneled part of the money to Al Qaeda, but they have offered no evidence.

Those who monitor Abu Sayyaf say it is composed of hard-core fighters, many of them now in their mid- to late 30s, who are Al Qaeda-trained veterans of the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan. An undetermined number of younger, less-experienced hired guns drift in and out, depending on the group's finances.

In the early 1990s, Abu Sayyaf is believed to have received Al Qaeda money, and its members met regularly with Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden. The group also boasted ties to Ramzi Yousef, convicted for his role in the 1993 New York World Trade Center bombing.

A separate Abu Sayyaf faction of about 700 fighters operating on the nearby island of Jolo has nurtured ties with Libya, which two years ago paid the group $20 million in ransom for the release of 21 hostages, including 11 foreigners, kidnapped from a Malaysian resort.

Abu Sayyaf members kidnapped the Burnhams and 18 others at a resort on the Philippines' Palawan island last year. They beheaded the only other American in the group, Sobero, and repeatedly have threatened to kill the Burnhams and a local nurse they also are holding. The other hostages have escaped or been released.

In an interview with a Manila newspaper this month, an Abu Sayyaf foot soldier suggested that the group was seeking social justice in a region ravaged by poverty, illiteracy and corruption.

"If we had jobs and no army to bother us, we would not be fighting," he said. "The problem is there has been a lot of talking since I was very young. Lots of projects from Manila, but nothing has changed."

The Bush administration, fearful that the Southeast Asian nation could become a breeding ground and launching pad for terrorist attacks, has restored close ties with Manila after a decade of relatively little attention. Senior Philippine military officers talk of using the $100 million in U.S. military aid to upgrade antiquated communications equipment and enhance night-vision capabilities.

Philippine and U.S. officials stress that the Burnhams still may be found before the American forces leave in July.

Rebel leaders have put feelers out for new ransom negotiations, and rumors fly about an arranged release or a rescue attempt by Philippine troops. None of the reports have proved substantive, and officials concede that they don't know for certain that the Burnhams are still being held on Basilan.

Philippine army officials say the rebels are most likely concealed in 30 square miles of dense jungle and rugged hills in the island's center. The sweltering climate has prompted the Green Berets, who have not joined in the patrols, to trim their packs from 80 pounds to 35 pounds.

"Most of the time we are fighting nature rather than the enemy," said Gliserio Sua, the Philippine army general in command of the hostage rescue operation.

Pentagon Asserts Impact Is Felt

Pentagon strategists say the Green Beret advisors and trainers have had an impact even though they are largely confined to Philippine military bases. Thanks to U.S. training and equipment, they say, the Philippine army now operates in villages the government has not controlled for years.

The rebels "are fleeing ... because of the pressure," said Eduardo R. Ermita, an advisor to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Overall, officials say, Abu Sayyaf has been weakened by defections, a handful of arrests and clashes with Philippine military units in recent months. They say the group's strength on Basilan has fallen from several hundred last year to fewer than 100 today.

In Isabela, the capital of Basilan island, where heavily armed U.S. troops still roll by in their Humvees, city leaders say conditions are as peaceful as they've been in years. Whether that will last is anyone's guess.

"I think it's going to be better when we leave," said Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, commander of the U.S. soldiers in the region. "I think the chances of it lasting are not bad."

Locals aren't so sure. Some fear a resurgence of Abu Sayyaf activities after July 31. "When the Americans leave, that's the time they will strike again," warned Christopher Puno, a spokesman for Basilan Gov. Wahab Akbar.

Times staff writer Bob Drogin in Washington contributed to this report.

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Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

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