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OCTOBER 2, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 13


AP.
A government soldier removes the blindfold of two suspected members of the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf after their capture.

The Price of Freedom
The battle to free hostages in the southern Philippines rages on, raising questions about the operation's ultimate cost
By NISID HAJARI

Even as the Philippine military continues its full-bore assault on Abu Sayyaf rebels on the southern island of Jolo, the guerrillas continue to issue defiant threats. Government spokesmen keep up a steady stream of upbeat pronouncements. Hostages are freed, dramatically and unexpectedly. Others change hands—now held by the man called "Commander Robot," now dragged through the jungle by rebels who stop to give periodic radio interviews. Generals call for tough action. Foreign governments appeal for gentler persuasion. Voices are raised, wondering why it's all taking so long.

Sound familiar? The scenario could just as well describe the five months of kidnappings and negotiations that preceded Operation Trident, launched at 0610 hrs on Sept. 16. Manila's confident prediction that the mission would be wrapped up within days has faded: by week's end, troops had yet to corner either of the groups still holding hostages. With reporters barred from Jolo all week, reliable information was even harder to come by than before. "[The military] may be able to get something accomplished in the very, very near future," presidential spokesman Ricardo Puno said hopefully, even as guerrilla spokesman Abu Sabaya and his American hostage, Jeffrey Schilling, went on local radio to insist that the shelling and firefights had hurt mostly civilians, not rebels. The operation can boast of one success—the escape of the two French hostages. But as with previous releases—when the price for a Western hostage went from $100,000 to $1 million, and Abu Sayyaf grew from a tiny band of thugs to a kidnapping cartel—the true cost of the confusion remains unclear.

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Just as murky is who deserves credit for the freedom of the Frenchmen. "Obviously, the Philippine army is proud to have recovered us. But let's just say we helped them out considerably in pulling that off," Jean-Jacques Le Garrec noted wryly shortly after regaining freedom. Le Garrec and Roland Madura—members of a French television crew seized by rebels on July 9 when they tried to interview the original group of hostages—gave their captors the slip on Tuesday night, after four days marching through the jungle to avoid government troops. As the guerrillas and their other hostages, including a Filipino evangelist so weakened by fasting that he had to be carried in a chair, dashed across a road, the Frenchmen hung back. After a few minutes the pair ran up the road, then hid in the trees for eight hours until they flagged down a passing army patrol on Wednesday morning.

Philippine President Joseph Estrada could barely resist gloating as he presented the Frenchmen at a press conference in Manila. Paris had complained most loudly about the decision to use force against the rebels, and French officials now had to eat at least some of their harsh words. "We have to have the honesty to recognize that if the offensive hadn't taken place, they would still be hostages," conceded French Foreign Minister Hubert VEdrine.

The Frenchmen's escape, though, can't totally vindicate the tactics of the Philippine military, which have produced mixed results at best. "We never saw or heard any fighting. It seems the military is content with dropping bombs at random," Madura told reporters. According to a top provincial official, the rebels may have split from two into three or four groups. The faction led by Galib Andang, better known as Commander Robot, is apparently holding 12 Filipino evangelists, while the group led by Abu Sabaya and the overall Abu Sayyaf commander, Khadaffy Janjalani, supposedly has custody of Schilling and a Filipino diving instructor, the last of the hostages taken from the nearby Malaysian island of Sipadan on April 23. Local reports say the military may have lost track of three Malaysians recently seized from a different island, and that some rebels may have escaped to nearby Filipino islands.

Jolo's civilian population does, in fact, seem to be bearing the brunt of the attack. Manila claims that only four civilians have been injured, while 60 rebels have been killed and 22 captured. But eyewitnesses say scores of non-combatants have been caught in the violence. One frightened evacuee says she saw the bodies of several children in Patikul, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold: "Some were headless." Others have reported bombs falling on a wedding party and the corpses of blindfolded men being dumped in Jolo city. "Civilians are not being allowed to enter hospitals because they are full already," says Nur Misuari, governor of the autonomous Muslim region that includes Jolo. The government concedes that some 12,000 people have been dislocated by the fighting, and with the suspension of normal ferry services between Zamboanga and Jolo, the island faces a severe food shortage.

Such suffering is all too familiar to the residents of Jolo. The city itself was twice razed by Spanish armadas—and more recently, leveled again by Filipino forces battling a Muslim insurgency led by Misuari himself in 1974. "I dread a repeat of that," says Dixie Musa, a Jolo businesswoman. Until some of the newly won ransom money started to trickle down to shopkeepers, locals had begun to resent the Abu Sayyaf. But even government officials say the current crackdown will fuel the area's centuries-old resentment of the country's Catholic majority. "At best this will create a lull in the fighting," says a high-ranking military intelligence officer. "All this is just damage control, not a permanent solution. It all boils down to the need for development, to uplift the people's conditions."

Even the short-term costs are potentially huge. Operation Trident is costing the cash-strapped government nearly $800,000 a day, and if the military does not recover the hostages quickly—and civilian casualties mount—the overwhelming public support Estrada now enjoys for the effort could quickly dissipate. The President's fury seems genuine enough. In private he calls Abu Sayyaf "sons of bitches," and has ordered the general in charge of the assault to "kill all these bandits." Even though Robot has sent word through the father of his third wife (a midwife captured when she came with a government medical team to examine the Sipadan hostages) that he may be ready for a deal, Estrada has ruled out any ceasefire until all the hostages are released.

But shortly after Robot's men snatched the Western tourists from Sipadan months ago, Estrada told one of his ministers: "You cannot keep paying. That's why we have so much kidnapping in the Philippines." The $15 million in ransom handed over to the guerrillas since then has led directly to the current, untenable situation. Its resolution is no more certain than the President's words.

Reported by Bruce Crumley/Paris and Nelly Sindayen/Zamboanga

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

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