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5, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 17 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK
A Religious War Comes to Paradise
and Kuala Lumpur find themselves in a major hostage crisis
By PENNY CRISP
It was just after dinner on a leisurely Sunday evening. Guests at the
Sipadan Island diving resort - a mere speck on the map east of Sabah -
were relaxing, lulled by the food and beauty. Reputedly one of the world's
top 10 diving destinations, the picturesque Malaysian islet has a controlled
tourist population of no more than 100, a few lazy monitor lizards, the
odd rare coconut crab and a dizzying kaleidoscope of marine life. It is
a 5-hectare fragment of heaven. Or rather, it was.
No one seems to have heard the two speedboats arrive. They disgorged six
men, armed with assault rifles and a rocket launcher. Some witnesses say
the men spoke Tausug, a dialect used by the Muslim minority in the southern
Philippines. Others say they spoke English in a Sulu accent. The nearby
Philippine archipelago of Sulu is close to the stronghold of Abu Sayyaf,
a violent group of Muslim separatists (see story page 22) that is currently
the target of a major military operation by the Manila government. Sulu
is also a haunt of pirates, who patrol the faultlines where disputed borders
of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines meet. The Sipadan invaders'
weapons, in any case, spoke a language that everyone understood.
According to Malaysian officials, the lone policeman on duty was the first
hostage. The gunmen then moved to the wildlife department office, taking
more hostages, then to the nearby resort. Tourists were robbed of money
and jewelry before the whole group was forced to swim to the kidnappers'
boats. An American couple managed to escape while the abductors were preoccupied
with herding the other 21 hostages. The boats headed for Philippine waters.
Confusion has dominated since. The day after the April 23 snatch, Malaysian
Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak said his government knew the "exact location"
of the kidnappers, but the police chief of Sabah said it didn't. Malaysia
said there were 20 abductees, but later settled on the 21 announced by
Philippine Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado. Mercado said the hostages
comprised nine Malaysians, three Germans, two Finns, two South Africans,
two French nationals, two Filipinos and a Lebanese woman. He added that
among them was the deputy police chief from the nearby port of Semporna.
By April 26, Malaysian police said 10 suspects had been arrested - some
of them former employees of the resort - but the location of the hostages
was still unknown. Philippine Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon said the
kidnappers and at least some of the hostages had been sighted on the Philippine
island of Jolo, part of the Sulu archipelago in Mindanao province. Nur
Misuari, a former separatist leader and now the governor of an autonomous
Muslim region in Mindanao, said the captives had been separated into two
groups and were being held in different villages. "Only the whites are
there," Misuari said of those spotted. "I don't know where the others
Defense Secretary Mercado and senior military officials flew to Jolo on
April 26, but Foreign Secretary Siazon said the Philippines was not planning
any action to free the captives. "We are in negotiation mode," he said.
"You are in a stage where you are trying to wait for contacts from the
Initially, no one was even sure who the "other side" was. According to
a Malaysian newspaper, the abductors left behind graffiti that said "Abu
Sayyaf." A sister of Philippine hostage Lucrecia Dablo said the resort
owners had told her they were in contact with the abductors. A nephew
of Dablo said the captors demanded a $2.6 million ransom - a tidy sum
for either pirates or extremists.
Abu Sayyaf, however, was delighted to claim responsibility. Philippine
forces have been pounding the group's mountain stronghold on the southern
island of Basilan, just north of the Sulu islands, since April 22. The
rebels are holding an estimated 28 of 58 hostages grabbed from two Basilan
schools on March 20. Some captives have been released in exchange for
food and medicine, but those remaining include 22 children and a Catholic
priest. Abu Sayyaf is demanding the release of three Muslim terrorists
convicted in the U.S. - among them the 1993 World Trade Center bomber
Ramzi Yousef. The extremists claim to have beheaded two hostages - both
male teachers - as a "birthday gift" to Philippine President Joseph Estrada
the week before the resort kidnappings. This has yet to be confirmed,
though the group has shown no qualms about taking such actions before.
When the military sent an estimated 1,500 personnel plus helicopter gunships
on April 22, Abu Sayyaf threatened to behead five more adult hostages.
Both sides are reporting casualties as the assault continues. Philippine
officials claim Abu Sayyaf is using the hostages as human shields.
The April 23 resort incident, then, could well be connected. But Abu Sayyaf
spokesman Abu Ahmad Salayuddin appeared to relish confusing the authorities.
At first he stated categorically that "our group is behind the abduction
of the foreigners, and there are still a lot of surprises for the government
if they won't listen to us." But later he seemed to backtrack: "I'm not
saying that we are the ones [who did it]. I'm also not saying we are not
the ones. Let's give the government a puzzle."
Some Manila officials were inclined to believe that the Sipadan snatch
was a simple kidnap-for-ransom case. Meanwhile, wild rumors were flying
in the Philippine Muslim community that the abduction was really the handiwork
of America's Central Intelligence Agency, which wanted to embarrass the
Malaysian government and undermine Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, long
a vocal critic of the West. But Mercado later indicated that the abductors
indeed belonged to Abu Sayyaf.
If Abu Sayyaf hoped government troops would be diverted by the Sipadan
kidnappings, then it was out of luck. Philippine officials assigned the
case to the national police and told the military to continue operations
Abu Sayyaf rebels may be getting pounded by government troops in Basilan,
but for them the standoff marks a defining chapter in their brief history.
After founder Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani was killed during a police
raid in 1998, the mantle of leadership was assumed by his younger brother,
Khaddafi Janjalani. Still in his early 20s, Khaddafi was once arrested
for kidnapping but escaped from jail, according to Sulu congressman Hussin
Amin. The March 20 abductions from Claret and Tumahubong schools in Tumahubong
town, Basilan, however, marked Khaddafi's grim leadership debut. And the
message was clear: Abu Sayyaf was back with a vengeance - and with a difference.
The group had given the Christian community ample warning by writing extortion
letters to the schools and teachers, and telling Catholic priests and
nuns to convert or face a holy war. But for the first time since the group's
kidnapping forays began in 1991, many Muslim students were also targeted
and dragged away. For the first time, too, another Muslim, Abdul Midjal,
retaliated by snatching Khaddafi's pregnant wife, son, mother and seven
other relatives. Midjal is demanding the release of all the school hostages,
including his two daughters and several cousins.
Basilan governor Wahab Akbar predicted that after this incident, Abu Sayyaf
would leave Basilan. "This is the first time they have encountered great
resistance from the [Muslim] community," he said. "They've lost the empathy."
An Islamic scholar who is widely perceived to have been Abu Sayyaf's spiritual
adviser - a charge he denies - Akbar does admit he once helped members
escape from the military because "that organization before was a good
organization." Not anymore. Akbar issued a "shoot-to-kill" order to his
armed followers on April 25, plus a bounty for every Abu Sayyaf body.
The best solution, he said, was to "kill them - even in public." Indeed,
kill or be killed may well be his only option - if the Philippine military
don't get to Abu Sayyaf first.
With reporting by Raissa Robles Manila and Arjuna Ranawana Kuala
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November 30, 2000