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SEPTEMBER 11, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 10

Bungles in the Jungle
Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines seize an American hostage, raising the stakes in a macabre kidnapping game
By NISID HAJARI

What Jeffrey Craig Schilling walked into last week was not just a trap, but a farce. The 24-year-old American had lived in the rough-and-tumble southern Philippines since March. He had married a local woman whose cousin was a fighter with a bloodthirsty band of Muslim guerrillas known as Abu Sayyaf, or Bearer of the Sword. He worried about the rebels' penchant for kidnapping foreigners, and he knew that one faction still held several Western hostages seized from the nearby Malaysian island of Sipadan back in April.

Even so, on Aug. 28 Schilling and his wife Ivi Osani went to a mall in Zamboanga City to meet those very same guerrillas. Osani says her husband was curious to see their hideout on the tiny island of Jolo. The rebels brought him there, but then detained him while sending Osani back to Zamboanga. Two days later her cousin, who goes by the name Abu Sabaya, called a local radio station and threatened to cut off Schilling's head if three Muslim militants held in U.S. jails, including World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, were not released. The threat couldn't easily be dismissed: in March, Abu Sabaya's faction kidnapped 53 people, including 22 children, on the island of Basilan; they beheaded two of the adults when that same demand went unheeded.

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Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines seize an American hostage, raising the stakes in a macabre kidnapping game

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Schilling, in fact, is only the newest player in a macabre comedy of errors. In the four months since the 21 hostages were taken from Sipadan—a period marked by snail's-pace talks between government negotiators and the rebels—the cast of captives has fluctuated wildly. German and French journalists sent to cover the drama have been held. Two are still in captivity, as are a dozen Filipino evangelists who paid the kidnappers $3,000 plus 50 sacks of rice to be allowed into their camp to pray. Nine Malaysians taken from Sipadan were let go after the guerrillas received $3 million from the Malaysian government. All but six of the Westerners have been set free as well, after a much larger ransom (reportedly $1 million a head) was put up by Libya, whose blustery leader Muammar Gaddafi has pushed the settlement as part of efforts to end his country's isolation. Meanwhile, at least four local women have been kidnapped to serve as "wives" for the newly flush guerrillas. "This has become a revolving door," says Philippine Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado.

Schilling may be the most prized catch. "One American is worth 10 Europeans," Abu Sabaya boasted in a radio interview, though he later denied that the rebels were asking for $10 million for Schilling's return. Washington, meanwhile, has ruled out any concessions, while Philippine officials, who have been at pains not to provoke the guerrillas, are clearly losing patience. "This will be a never-ending story where they release some hostages, keep some and add to their stock," warns presidential secretary Ronaldo Zamora. "Things have to stop somewhere." The embarrassment caused by the ongoing crisis—foreign firms have stepped up security in the region, and travelers have once again been warned to stay away—has renewed calls for the government to end the standoff with force.

The thousands of troops already deployed on Jolo would be only too glad to oblige. For months the Philippine soldiers have been held in abeyance, as European governments insisted that Manila use only peaceful means to secure the release of their citizens. That has meant following a longstanding tradition in the southern Philippines: paying up. Only after Libya pledged $25 million in "development aid" to the rebels did they begin to release the bulk of the Western hostages. The six set free last week were originally to have been released a week earlier, but the plan fell through when Libyan negotiators offered to pay at a rate of 42 pesos to the dollar (the rate when the hostages were seized). After they brought their offer up to the current 45 pesos to the dollar, the deal went through.

The spectacle of Gaddafi shelling out cash for Western tourists is no stranger than many of the other twists in the saga. French and German officials seem content to allow the Libyan leader to enjoy a publicity coup, though they insist they promised nothing for his help. If the Libyans "want to give money to development projects in Jolo out of some strategic concern regarding Libya's image, that's their problem," says French Foreign Minister Hubert VEdrine. The six Westerners released last week were flown out of Jolo (and served soft drinks instead of champagne, out of deference to their Muslim liberators) and flown across the world to Tripoli, where they posed for pictures in front of the Gaddafi residence destroyed by U.S. bombs in 1986.

The Libyan leader may not be expecting any more tangible gains than a polishing of his country's image in international circles. But back in Jolo, his generosity has already had an impact. Dealers in gold, gems and pearls have flocked to the island, where so much U.S. currency from Libya's initial ransom payments (the later ones were in pesos) is in circulation that moneychangers now give only 20 pesos to the dollar. The price of weapons, in a region that's home to an estimated half-million loose firearms, has skyrocketed. Armalites that once sold for less than $900 are now fetching three or four times that much. The ranks of Abu Sayyaf, once thought to number around 200 members, have swelled to more than 1,000.

The rebels have thus won a victory—the means to continue their terror campaign. Abu Sayyaf is "a ticking political time bomb," says opposition leader Heherson Alvarez, "which will continue to threaten the country's stability." Even if Abu Sayyaf frees the remaining Sipadan hostages and two members of a French TV crew as promised, it will still hold more than a dozen Filipinos as a shield against an attack by government troops. The group holding Schilling may be bluffing when it vows to kidnap another American. But it, too, is unlikely to release its captive without some insurance against attack. For now, Jolo's motley crew of kidnappers seem likely to have the last laugh.

Reported by Bruce Crumley/Paris, Azadeh Moaveni/Cairo, Ursula Sautter/Bonn and Nelly Sindayen/Zamboanga

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