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SEPTEMBER 25, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 12

Joel Nito/AFP.
Philippine President Joseph Estrada (front) said "enough is enough" in announcing his decision to order a military assault on the Muslim rebels holding 22 hostages.

No More Talk: It's War
The Philippine hostage saga takes a deadly turn as Manila, losing patience, sends in the military

At daybreak on Saturday, as Philippine Air Force jets and helicopters pounded the island of Jolo where Muslim rebels had holed up with 22 hostages, a complex equation was quickly simplified. Before, officials had trouble keeping track of how many hostages Abu Sayyaf guerrillas were holding, let alone whom to negotiate with. Now the numbers were all on the government's side: 4 battalions, 30 armored personnel carriers, 5 jets, more than 3,000 troops. Within hours the weeks of back-and-forth talks, unfulfilled promises and fresh kidnappings had given way to a flat-out military assault. "Enough is enough," said Philippine President Joseph Estrada. "We will not allow kidnappers or other lawless elements to mock our laws or control our lives."

Although special-forces troops from the army, navy and air force were involved, the operation was hardly a surgical strike. On Friday night the Philippine military ordered Jolo harbor cleared of all civilian boats, to make room for warships and transport to ferry troops to the island. The attack that began the next day concentrated on rebel strongholds in the jungles outside Jolo City. But the immense firepower being brought to bear greatly increased the chances that the hostages would be caught in the crossfire—if their captors did not dispose of them first. Late Saturday unconfirmed reports claimed American Jeffrey Schilling and 12 Filipino evangelists may have been executed, though the military later said no hostages were harmed. There was no word on the status of the others, including two members of a French television crew.

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Philippine authorities are gambling that the hostages would never have been released without a full-scale assault. The faction holding the two Frenchmen has set free 20 other foreign and Filipino hostages since a raid on the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan on April 23. But they have reportedly received more than $15 million in ransom for their trouble, and that money has emboldened rivals and sparked infighting within the ranks of Abu Sayyaf. As recently as Sept. 10, a different faction kidnapped three Malaysians from another nearby island. According to some reports, an agreement for the release of the Frenchmen fell through when rival guerrilla groups blockaded the camp where they were being held in a dispute over ransom payments. By Saturday, frustrated negotiators were privately saying that they had had enough, and that it was indeed time to call in the troops.

Many had lost patience even sooner. After the Sept. 10 raid, a furious Estrada cut short a visit to the United States and flew home. At a meeting last Wednesday, he gave negotiators only two more days to secure the release of the Frenchmen. Within the country he faced mounting calls for the government to show some spine rather than meeting the kidnappers' demands for money (which until now has come in the form of "development funds" donated mostly by Libya). Neighboring countries had begun to complain about the impact of the kidnappings on tourism in the region. And the President, who has shouldered the blame as well for a weakening peso and comatose stock market, knew he could ill afford more public humiliation.

The decision to strike is popular among Filipinos. Only France openly criticized the attack; both Malaysia and the U.S. have said they respect Manila's right to handle the situation as it sees fit. During a visit to Manila on Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen urged authorities to pursue negotiations—and over the long-term to train special forces to rescue hostages with a minimum of casualties. But after being forewarned of the assault by Estrada himself on Friday night, Cohen said he hoped theoperation would be successful.

That, however, remains an open question. Jolo is tiny—less than 900 sq km—and fighting is reportedly being confined to three districts. But while government troops should theoretically be able to overrun rebel positions easily, past experience warns against overconfidence. Guerrillas have reportedly built underground tunnels to hide from army shelling, and they know the thickly forested terrain well. They have also upgraded their weaponry considerably with their newfound wealth. Unfortunately for the hostages, many of whom have been held for weeks and even months, this particular battle may only be beginning.

Reported by Nelly Sindayen/Zamboanga

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