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MAY 5, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 17 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

A Religious War Comes to Paradise
Manila 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 were taken."

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 other side."

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 in Basilan.

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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