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Philippines Doubtful About Smashing Guerrilla Movement

For more than a decade, the Abu Sayyaf has waged a war of terror in the southern Philippines. The Philippine military has been unable to stop the gang, despite the deaths of scores of soldiers. Many people doubt the army is serious about eradicating the guerrillas. Some even accuse military leaders of colluding with the Abu Sayyaf.

Father Loi Cirilo Nacorda is a Catholic priest who tends to St. Joseph parish in the center of Lamitan, a small port city nestled on this island of 300,000 people.

On June 2 of last year, the Abu Sayyaf invaded Father Loi's parish.

He vividly recalls the terror, as two armed men spotted him. "I heard a shout from the armed men, meaning he's the one, shoot him. And my seminarian shouted, 'Father they're here, run," Father Loi said.

Father Loi, who had been kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf in 1994, escaped to a neighbor's house. The guerrillas took over the parish hospital, and brought in about two dozen hostages, seized a few days before from a resort.

The Philippine army attacked the compound with heavy firepower, as local television cameras recorded the fight.

Nearly a dozen people died during the 18-hour ordeal, including four soldiers, and the church was heavily damaged.

Father Loi and other witnesses say they saw evidence that some senior officials colluded with the Abu Sayyaf, allowing the guerrillas to escape with most of their captives.

Residents and members of a local militia have said, in the late afternoon, the soldiers suddenly withdrew from around the back of the compound. Father Loi said one hour later, the guerrillas fled through a gate in the rear wall.

"So, it seems they knew that the military was no longer at the back portion of the hospital and the church. When they [the guerrillas] came out, they were just walking casually. The barrels of their guns were just pointing down, and it seems they were not in the combat position," Father Loi said.

Later, several hostages who escaped, or were released, swore out affidavits saying they saw military officers carry a satchel into the hospital. They say they heard guerrillas claiming a ransom had been paid for two hostages.

Some people speculate the officials acted out of concern for the hostages' safety, or were negotiating for their release.

Military officials deny the allegations. They say no such meeting took place and no ransom was paid. The military has said an internal investigation absolved the accused. Some of the officers were later promoted.

In addition, Father Loi has said, witnesses in the church and the hospital allege that, during the siege, they saw the governor of Basilan meet with guerrilla leader Abu Sabbaya.

"And one of my witnesses inside, a Muslim, he saw Wahab Akbar. Although he was disguising himself, he was seen by one of our witnesses talking with [Abu Sayyaf commander] Abu Sabbaya inside the hospital," Father Loi said.

Governor Wahab Akbar vehemently denies the accusations. "No. I have never been with them. I have always been against them since the very beginning. This is only political issues since the very beginning," the governor said.

Governor Wahab acknowledges he is a former member of the Moro National Liberation Front, an older rebel group that has signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government. And he acknowledges he fought alongside Abu Sayyaf founder Abdulrajak Janjalani years ago. But he denies allegations he helped found the Abu Sayyaf, saying they have been trumped up by rival politicians.

The reports have fueled suspicion, and eroded trust in the military. After dark, most of Lamitan's residents stay indoors, and it is the civilian militia that patrols the neighborhoods.

Father Loi said ending the terror will not be easy.

"The problem is within. It's within the organization of the armed forces of the Philippines. So, they have to reform this organization," he said.

Not far from Lamitan, U.S. soldiers are training with Philippine troops in a joint anti-terrorism exercise aimed at crushing the Abu Sayyaf. The gang, which says it is fighting for a Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines, has been linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network run by Osama bin Laden.

Many residents here do not think the Abu Sayyaf is part of a network of international terrorists. But after a decade of terror, they are grasping for solutions.

As a result, many welcome the U.S. troops on Basilan Island. They hope the Americans will make a difference, although most acknowledge no foreigner can eliminate the deeply rooted violence in their society.