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Cash, Guns — and Lives
The hostage crisis drags on a little longer

It was supposed to be all the hostages. Instead, just four were released — one Filipino on Aug. 17 and three Malaysians two days later. The Abu Sayyaf held on to the other 13 abductees — the 10 remaining from the 21 people plucked from Malaysia's Sipadan Island in April, plus three French television journalists who were taken later. The Muslim insurgent group's reneging on its promise to free everyone underlined the intractable nature of the hostage crisis that has been dragging on for four months on the Philippines' southern Jolo Island.

The main reason the 13 hostages failed to win their freedom is money. The Abu Sayyaf has demanded much more than the ransom amount previously agreed to by the negotiating team, led by chief government negotiator Robert Aventajado and Rajab Azzarouq, a representative of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan strongman has taken a personal interest in the matter, partly because of his country's traditional links with Muslim insurgents in the Philippines. It is also believed that he wants to burnish his international credentials, so that there would be greater pressure on the U.S. to lift its sanctions on Libya.

The Abu Sayyaf had originally demanded $1 million for each of the hostages — $13 million in all. But when Azzarouq met with the kidnappers in their mountain lair 20 km from Jolo town, capital of Sulu province, the group apparently upped their demand to $25 million — the amount that was reportedly offered earlier by Gaddafi. Libya later agreed to pay the whole sum.

Another reason for the guerrillas' about-turn is their fear that the military will launch a full-scale offensive against them once the hostages are released. Already, hundreds of villagers living nearby have been evacuating their homes to avoid being caught up in the crossfire. Aventajado denies that there is a plan for attack, although the military admits to beefing up its engineering brigade in the province in preparation for "rehabilitation work." Says Aventajado: "There has been no military movement."

But a military solution might be too tempting for Manila to forgo, especially for President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, who has assumed a hawkish position against the insurgents. "It would be easy to attack the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu," says Ramon Montano, a former chief of the Philippine National Police. "The area practically has no jungles." In anticipation of an offensive, the kidnappers have been on a weapons-buying spree on Jolo. "We are going to release all the hostages," said Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Asmad Salayudi on local radio on Aug. 21. "But we have to prepare ourselves."

The irony is that the Abu Sayyaf's purchase of arms is probably being financed by the ransom money already paid to the group. Gen. Angelo Reyes, chief of staff of the armed forces, recently revealed that the guerrillas had raised 245 million pesos ($5.5 million). The figure likely includes 120 million pesos for six of the nine Malaysian hostages, 60 million pesos for the remaining three Malaysians and $1 million for the German hostage Renate Wallert. (A Sulu-based businessman brought about the Malaysians' release, while Wallert's ransom is thought to have been paid out of Germany.) The kidnappers have also been routinely shaking down visiting journalists for money and valuables.

Reyes's disclosure was the first official confirmation that ransom money was being paid to the Abu Sayyaf. Estrada maintains that he is sticking to his no-ransom policy, but says he cannot do anything about private negotiators striking their own deals with the kidnappers. (The money agreed to by the negotiating team, insists Aventajado, is not ransom but "development funds" for livelihood projects in the impoverished Sulu province.)

This lack of a unified approach to resolving the crisis does not bode well for the future. The Abu Sayyaf's kidnappings have brought cash not just to the bandits but to Sulu residents, and hopes of getting a share of the loot have swelled the ranks of the Abu Sayyaf from about 200 to more than 1,000. The new recruits see that crime, unlike the old adage, does indeed pay.

Not surprisingly, many Filipinos are angry at the state of affairs. "If the Abu Sayyaf gutter-rats are successful in this outrageous enterprise," wrote columnist Maximo Soliven recently, "many thousands of Filipinos and other foreigners will be at risk — for the word will have gone out among the murderous criminal and insurgent underworld that our Filipino officials are pushovers, our church leaders have wishbone instead of backbone and peddle defeatism instead of faith, and that our government is weak and helpless."

The government's strategy appears to be to get all the hostages freed — through ransom payments or otherwise — and then bring down all its military might on the Abu Sayyaf. Reyes neither confirms nor denies plans for an offensive on Sulu once the hostages are released. He merely states: "The military is part of the long-term solution to banditry in Sulu." Unfortunately, because of the muddled approach to the crisis, the solution may have become that much more difficult.

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