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1 Year After Abduction, Missionaries Still Missing in Philippines - 2002-05-26

A year ago, American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham went to a southern Philippines resort to celebrate their wedding anniversary. They have yet to come home. Monday, May 27, is the anniversary of the day they were kidnapped by Muslim rebels. Efforts to free them have failed, even with the help of the U.S. military.

The Abu Sayyaf gang raided the Dos Palmas resort early in the morning. They took 20 hostages, forcing them to the jungle-covered island of Basilan in the southern Philippines, a predominantly Muslim region.

Some hostages later escaped, and others were released after ransom was paid. Three were killed, including American Guillermo Sobero. Martin and Gracia Burnham and a Philippine nurse, Ediborah Yap, remain captive.

The Abu Sayyaf claims to be fighting to establish an independent Muslim nation in the impoverished south of the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines. In the past few years, however, the group has become known for a series of kidnappings. The group has been vaguely linked to the al-Qaida terror network.

Some reports say the Abu Sayyaf demands $2 million in ransom for the Burnhams, an amount the couple's family and friends say they can not afford. Both the Philippine and U.S. governments say they do not pay kidnappers. Instead, the Philippine military has been hunting for the hostages. Finding them is not easy, says Colonel Jose Mabanta.

"Basilan is two times [the size of] Metro Manila, it has very rugged terrain, thick mangrove, and crisscrossing streams and rivers make it very hard for troops to pinpoint [the] exact location of the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers," he said.

Father Eliseo Mercado, a Roman Catholic priest and peace advocate in the south, says the problem is not in the jungle but inside the military.

"The popular belief in Mindanao ... is that they believe there is a real connivance between the elements of the Abu Sayyaf and some elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine national police," said Father Mercado, who pointed to an incident last June. In what looked like a sure win, the military surrounded the Abu Sayyaf in a hospital. But the rebels managed to slip away with their hostages.

Witnesses say the rebels escaped after paying off some military officers and local officials. The military denies the allegations and says a lack of troops and equipment was at fault.

Father Mercado says more men and military hardware is not the answer. "All these massive deployments as well as technology will be rendered futile if you don't have much intelligence work in the community proper itself. I don't think the local government units as well as the communities are whole-hearted in really resolving the issue of the Abu Sayyaf," he said.

The Philippine government has had to contend with elements of local support for the Abu Sayyaf, either because of community fear of the group or because a belief the rebels are champions for the Philippines' poor Muslim community.

Many people hoped the hostages would be freed quickly after the United States stepped in earlier this year. More than 600 American soldiers are training Philippine troops in the southern islands, practicing skills to fight terrorists, including the Abu Sayyaf.

Asian studies Professor Asiri Abubakar, at the University of the Philippines in Manila, says that despite American help, the rescue effort seems deliberately slow. He says that prolonging the crisis is good business for corrupt military officers and local officials.

He also contends the crisis benefits Philippine President Gloria Arroyo's administration, which has pledged to address the economic problems in the south.

"The entry of the American troops could be interpreted as a factor that could help the stability of the Arroyo administration, said Prof. Abubakar, who says the hostage crisis keeps the focus on the region and has prompted the United States to commit the second largest contingent of troops after Afghanistan in its war on terror.

Prof. Abubakar and Father Mercado say the government needs to make a stronger commitment to address corruption and poverty - factors that fueled the hostage crisis and may lead to future ones. They doubt this commitment will come soon. Instead, they think the United States might secretly pay a ransom to free the Burnhams, and avoid having its effort in the Philippines be deemed a failure.