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Philippine military, Abu Sayyaf links probed

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The military is suspected to have been conspiring with the kidnappers.  

By Rufi Vigilar in Manila

MANILA, Philippines -- Philippine lawmakers have started hearings on whether military officials helped Abu Sayyaf kidnappers escape in the southern Philippines last June.

Abu Sayyaf kidnappers holding 20 hostages at the time were able to slip through a military cordon around the Basilan provincial hospital, taking with them more hostages as they fled.

The three-month hostage crisis has embarrassed the Philippine goverment and affected investor confidence in the economy.

The hearings being held in Basilan were spurred by Catholic priest and former Abu Sayyaf hostage Fr. Cirilo Nacorda.

Nacorda alleges that military commanders leading search and rescue operations shared ransom money to help the kidnappers escape.

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    The money supposedly came from a Filipino businessman who was among the first 20 hostages abducted from a resort in the western province of Palawan on May 27, before being taken to Basilan.

    Three Americans were among the Palawan hostages. One of them is believed to be among the 10 hostages beheaded by the kidnappers since the crisis began.


    Despite the deployment of 5,000 troops in Basilan -- more than twice the estimated strength of the Abu Sayyaf -- the military has not been able to subdue the group.

    The military said the difficulty lay in Basilan's jungle terrain and the connivance of residents sympathetic or fearful of the Muslim guerrillas.

    But congressmen say the military may have been conspiring with the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers.

    Brigadier General Romeo Dominguez denied the ransom allegations against him and troops commander Colonel Jovenal Narcise in Saturday afternoon's hearings at the Basilan State University.

    Dominguez created Task Force Comet which is composed of three brigades leading the offensive against the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers.

    He allegedly arrived at the hospital with a black briefcase stuffed with cash, part of which was given to the hospital director.

    The general then allegedly ordered the withdrawal of his troops to allow the Abu Sayyaf to flee, shortly after kidnapped businessman Reghis Romero was freed with two other hostages. Romero will be summoned next week.

    "I do not carry a briefcase, specially when going to war," Dominguez said during the hearing.

    He admitted handing out cash from a black backpack but said it was to pay for the treatment of wounded soldiers in the hospital.

    In an earlier interview, Dominguez said that Father Nacorda's allegations stemmed from his "trauma as a hostage."

    Dominguez also denied withdrawing his troops from the hospital but "repositioned" them to allow a helicopter gunship to attack.

    Congressman Prospero Pichay, who presided in the hearing, noted that Nacorda "is not a first-hand witness."

    But Pichay added that several witnesses who gave their testimonies in a closed-door session have supported the priest's allegations.

    "The witnesses said there were no military after Regis' release," Pichay said.

    Basilan governor Wahab Akbar also supports Nacorda's claims but has himself been implicated in the alleged pay-off.

    Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Sabaya said he handed part of the ransom money to an emissary of Akbar who would supposedly split the loot with the military.

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