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SEPTEMBER 29 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 38 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Getting Tough
Manila seeks to end the five-month hostage crisis with military force
By SANGWON SUH and ANTONIO LOPEZ Manila

ALSO
Chronology:
From abduction to assault

The breakthrough came none too soon. Just when it seemed the Philippine military was making little headway in its efforts to end the country's five-month hostage crisis, there was news that silenced, momentarily at least, all those who had doubted the wisdom of using force. At 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 20 — the fifth day of the operations — the military retrieved unharmed two French hostages, TV journalists Jean-Jacques LeGarrec and Roland Madura, from an Abu Sayyaf rebel hideout in Indanan town on Jolo Island. Upon receiving the news, French President Jacques Chirac thanked his Philippine counterpart Joseph Ejercito Estrada and apologized for his previous opposition to the offensive. "Send my deepest gratitude to your military," he said.

For Estrada, it was a morale-boosting vindication of his policies. His leadership had been questioned throughout the hostage crisis, which began when the Abu Sayyaf Muslim separatist group snatched 21 hostages, most of them foreigners, from the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan in April and held them for ransom on Jolo Island in Sulu province. The events of the next five months often descended to the level of farce and did little to show that Estrada was firmly in charge.

For one, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, whose country has traditionally had links with Philippine Muslim insurgents, took a special interest in the matter and sent his envoy, Abdul Rajab Azzarouq, to join in the negotiations. At the same time, Lee Peng Wee, a businessman based in nearby Zamboanga City, was making his own deals with the rebels for the release of the nine Malaysians in the hostage group. Meanwhile, third parties, including a three-member French TV crew, a group of Philippine evangelists and an American, were wandering into the guerrilla camp for a variety of reasons and themselves becoming unwilling guests of the Abu Sayyaf.

By September, after protracted negotiations and multimillion-dollar ransom payments, all the captives had been released except the American, two of the French TV crew, 12 evangelists and a Filipino from the original Sipadan group. (The payment of ransom has opened a new can of worms, with the Senate now looking into allegations that government emissaries colluded with the rebels to take a cut of the money.) Then, on Sept. 10, Abu Sayyaf guerrillas raided another Malaysian resort on Pandanan Island and abducted three Malaysians.

That was the last straw. Deeming enough was enough, Estrada ordered an all-out military attack on the Abu Sayyaf. The objective: to rescue the hostages and destroy the rebels. The assault began in the early hours of Saturday, Sept. 16. The military blockaded Jolo, cutting off all communications and travel links with nearby islands, and imposed a news blackout. Government forces used mortars, helicopter gunships and airplanes to bombard rebel positions. Later that morning, Estrada told the nation: "These criminals intend not only to continue taking hostages but to hold our entire country in a never-ending cycle of kidnappings. They mistake our patience for weakness or willingness to see our laws blatantly violated and our people humiliated."

The military action was generally welcomed by a public tired of acquiescing to rebel demands. Surveys indicated that those who supported the offensive outnumbered those who didn't 10 to 1. Even Robert Aventajado, Manila's chief representative in the talks with the rebels, backed the government's switch to forceful measures. "It's about time lives were sacrificed to save lives in the future," he told Asiaweek. (But he added: "I have mixed feelings. It's no longer my responsibility, but my heart still yearns for the safety of the remaining hostages, praying no harm befalls them.")

The reaction from abroad was less enthusiastic. France in particular was vocal in its opposition to the use of force. On Sept. 18, French ambassador to Manila Gilles Chouraqui told Philippine Acting Foreign Secretary Franklin Ebdalin: "The French government disagrees with the decision taken by the president to launch military operations."

Manila's response: Mind your own business. "Other countries, I hope, understand [that] we don't interfere in the way they run things," said press secretary Ricardo Puno. Malaysia and the U.S. expressed concern over the safety of the hostages, but conceded that the final decision lay with Estrada. The military option was "a prerogative of the Philippine government," said Arshad Hussein, Malaysia's ambassador to the Philippines.

In the first few days, though, it seemed the skeptics were right. By Monday, Sept. 18, all the government had to show for its use of force was 10 officially dead (six guerrillas and four civilians), plus thousands of displaced residents of nearby villages. The military said three Abu Sayyaf bases had been overrun, but neither the hostages nor the rebel leaders were anywhere to be found. But just as doubts were appearing as to whether a swift conclusion was in sight, the two French captives were found, easing the pressure on Estrada and affording him a freer hand in pursuing his military goals.

Chronology of strife
By ANTHONY SABINE
April 23
Abu Sayyaf guerrillas kidnap 10 Western tourists and 11 resort workers — nine Malaysians, three Germans, two French, two South Africans, two Finns, two Filipinos and one French-Lebanese — from the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan. The hostages are taken to Jolo.
May 9
Libya sends Abdul Rajab Azzarouq to join the negotiating process.
May 27
Manila's chief negotiator Robert Aventajado meets with the rebels, whose list of demands include an independent Muslim state.
June 24
A Malaysian hostage is released after negotiations between the rebels and businessman Lee Peng Wee. Some 15 million pesos ($330,000) is reported to have been paid.
July 1
A group of 13 Philippine evangelists visits the Abu Sayyaf's jungle camp to pray for peace. They are held as hostages.
July 9
The guerrillas detain a three-member French television crew that entered the camp in a bid to interview the hostages.
July 14
Lee negotiates the release of another Malaysian hostage.
July 17
The first foreign hostage — German Renate Wallert — is freed.
July 21
Four Malaysian hostages are freed.
July 27
One evangelist is released.
Aug. 18
A Philippine hostage from Sipadan is freed. Two days later, the remaining three Malaysians find their freedom.
Aug. 24
Two men are arrested in Zamboanga City while trying to convert $240,000 into pesos. The cash is suspected to be part of the ransom money received by the Abu Sayyaf.
Aug. 27
Five foreign hostages — four from Sipadan and one from the French TV crew — are released. A South African is also freed the next day.
Aug. 28
An American, Jeffrey Schilling, enters an Abu Sayyaf camp and is taken hostage.
Sept. 9
The remaining four Western hostages from Sipadan are freed.
Sept. 10
The Abu Sayyaf kidnaps three Malaysians from the resort island of Pandanan.
Sept. 16
Manila launches a military offensive against the Abu Sayyaf.
If Manila does manage to destroy the Abu Sayyaf, it would not only end the hostage crisis but close a chapter on a lingering Muslim insurgency that has long ravaged the Philippine south. Separatists have been struggling for an independent state in parts of Mindanao where Islam is a dominant religion for over three decades. Filipinos sighed with relief in 1996 when the main insurgent group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), signed a peace accord with Manila in return for a measure of autonomy. But two other factions — the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the smaller Abu Sayyaf — rejected the deal and continued their fight.

Four years on, the militants' cause appears, outwardly at least, to be on the wane. Both the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF are currently on the defensive, the latter after government troops overran Camp Abubakar, the group's stronghold in Mindanao, earlier this year. There is also discord between the two factions. The Abu Sayyaf may have begun as an advocate of a puritannical form of Islam, but it has since degenerated into a ragtag group of cash-hungry bandits, causing the MILF to dismiss its guerrillas as "lawless elements" and their activities as "un-Islamic."

Support from abroad is dwindling too. The state of Sabah in East Malaysia is a short boat ride from the Sulu archipelago and has traditionally acted as a haven for illegal immigrants from the Philippines — including Muslim separatists. It is widely acknowledged that Malaysia was in the past sympathetic to the plight of fellow Muslims in the Philippines. "The Sabah government under Tun Mustapha Harun [chief minister from 1967 to 1975] supported the MNLF," says Kamarulnizam Abdullah, a regional security expert at the National University of Malaysia. "He provided logistical support. The federal government knew but kept silent."

But any lingering sympathy has dissipated in the wake of the abductions of Malaysians. Kuala Lumpur decided to station troops on all islands along Sabah's east coast; it also ordered that any intrusions into Sabah by Philippine insurgents be met with force. "We have no other alternative but to shoot them should they enter our waters to harm us," said Deputy Home Minister Zainal Abidin Zin.

Clearly, the Abu Sayyaf rebels have few options open to them. But does this mean Manila will be able to wipe them out completely? Brig.-Gen. Narciso Abaya, commander of the offensive, initially promised that the operations would be completed in "three days to a week." But many observers were skeptical. "If he can clear Jolo in a month's time, that would already be extraordinary," said retired major-general Delfin Castro, who commanded troops in Mindanao under former president Ferdinand Marcos. "I would give him maybe three months or more."

Former MNLF leader Nur Misuari agrees with Castro, noting that the rebels are very familiar with the local jungle terrain. "You cannot finish this in a week," he says. "This is a highly mobile kind of war. There is no battle line. [The rebels] are very agile and have a mastery of the terrain." His prediction: "I think this operation will last three to six months."

The government later clarified that the Jolo operation had no specific deadline, only that it should be completed as soon as possible. Even so, some fear that the situation might degenerate into a quagmire in which the rebels resort to protracted guerrilla warfare. "A worst-case scenario would be paramilitary groups, local militias and warlord armies becoming engaged," says former House speaker Jose de Venecia. "We might then see local history repeating itself in atrocities, massacres, religious strife and ethnic cleansing, such as that seen in Kosovo."

De Venecia pinpoints the underlying factor that feeds extremism in the south — not religion but poverty. "We must develop the Sulu area into a major economic zone," he says. "We must develop its agriculture and fisheries." Given enough time and resources, Estrada may well succeed in grinding the Abu Sayyaf out of existence. But if he does not address the conditions that give rise to and sustain such groups, the war will be only half won.

With reporting by Santha Oorjitham/Kuala Lumpur

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