A Philippine congressional committee is looking into allegations that several army officers conspired with the Muslim extremist kidnapping group, Abu Sayyaf, during a recent military campaign in the southern Philippines.
Friday's hearing in the Philippine town of Lamitan on Basilan island drew several hundred people, eager to hear the testimony of the main witness Roman Catholic priest Cirilo Nacorda.
On June 2, Father Nacorda was inside a hospital and church complex in Lamitan where the Abu Sayyaf was holding more than 20 hostages it had kidnapped earlier from a Philippine resort. After an intense gun battle with the Abu Sayyaf, embarrassed military leaders declared that the kidnappers had somehow slipped through a cordon of troops and escaped with the hostages.
The Catholic priest told the congressional committee that more than a dozen witnesses saw senior army officers, including a brigadier general, accepting payoffs from the Abu Sayyaf prior to the escape. Father Nacorda says an army captain later approached him and complained that the escape appeared to have been scripted.
The priest says if the allegations are true, it would explain how 30 kidnappers managed to slip away from a military, which had enough troops and firepower to annihilate the group.
The accused officers deny the corruption charges. In addition to investigations by both the House and the Senate, they face a separate defense department probe. Retired Major General Ruben Ciron says the men should be considered innocent until proven otherwise. "I don't know the results yet," he said, "but personally, I don't think the allegations are true. It's impossible that it could have happened."
The Abu Sayyaf, which claims to be fighting for a Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines, is believed to be still holding up to 20 hostages in the jungles of Basilan island. The Philippine government so far has had little success in curtailing the extremists' kidnap-for-ransom activities, which have chased away tourists and foreign investment.