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Mother of US Hostage Held in Philippines Increasingly Concerned - 2002-06-06

Relatives of the American missionary couple being held hostage by Philippine Muslim extremists say they have doubts about the efforts of the Philippine Army to rescue the pair. VOA's Stephanie Mann spoke by telephone with the mother of hostage Martin Burnham, and she says the family hopes a new U.S. offer of a reward will produce information about the captives and lead to their freedom.

One year is a long time. That is how Oreta Burnham describes the months of waiting for her son and daughter-in-law, Martin and Gracia, to be rescued from the Abu Say group that kidnapped them in May 2001.

Every time there is a new report that Philippine soldiers have closed in on the Abu Sayyaf rebels, Mrs. Burnham wonders if it's just another unsubstantiated rumor.

"We've heard those many times, and after one year you begin to weigh it and see if this is coming from a reliable source or something," she said. "Because after one year, and having the military there for several months, you wonder why they can't find them. And so when reports come, we wait for a confirmation from the State Department on the truth of the matter, and what they know about it."

Mrs. Burnham says lately there has not been much new information on the effort to rescue Martin and Gracia.

The couple had been living on the main Philippine island of Luzon and working with the Florida-based religious group, New Tribes Mission. Martin Burnham flies a Cessna plane for the mission, taking supplies to missionaries working in remote areas of Luzon and two other Philippine islands, Palawan and Mindanao. In May last year, he returned to the Philippines after a month away on business, and his wife joined him on a short missionary flight to [the island of] Palawan. Because they had not made other plans to mark their 18th wedding anniversary, Oreta Burnham says Gracia decided to surprise her husband and arranged for a one night stopover at a resort on Palawan Island.

That was where Abu Sayyaf rebels abducted the couple, along with several other hotel guests. The guerrillas took their hostages to Basilan island. Over the past year, most of the other hostages escaped or were released. A few were killed. Only the Burnhams and a Philippine nurse, Deborah Yap, are still being held.

In April, news reports said a ransom of $300,000 was paid to the Abu Sayyaf with the understanding that all three hostages would be freed. Other family members have been quoted as saying Abu Say have not lived up to their word, but Mrs. Burnham would not comment on the ransom issue.

Last week, the U.S. government announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of the top Abu Sayyaf leaders. Mrs. Burnham says the family has mixed reactions about that offer.

"We know that there are probably some people now that may come forward with legitimate information, and yet again it may also cause some danger towards those that are holding Martin and Gracia and may even put them in a crossfire, so it's a mixed emotion feeling," she said. "But if this helps in getting more information as to their whereabouts and to get them released, then we're encouraged by that."

Mrs. Burnham also says she is grateful for whatever help the United States can provide to the Philippine military searching for her son and his wife. As part of the expanding U.S. anti-terrorism campaign, 160 U.S. military advisers, and 1,000 U.S. support personnel are in the Philippines, helping to train Philippine soldiers trying to track to down the Abu Sayyaf rebels.

But Mrs. Burnham is quite concerned it has taken the Philippine military so long, and they still haven't found her son and daughter-in-law. "When you look at it, and when it's over one year, it does put some question in our mind as to how efficient have they been or how much have they tried to find them," she said. "The big concern of ours is the length of time and the health condition of our son and daughter in law."

She says the couple has been deprived of food at times, and they are constantly on the run and are exhausted. Mrs. Burnham, who is a nurse, notes such conditions will only worsen any health problems.

"We've heard at different times that they've had malaria, and they've had other infections," she said. "And if you don't get the proper medication and the proper diet to help your body get over these things, then you're just going to add to the situation."

Mrs. Burnham says she has learned that Martin and Gracia are keeping their spirits strong through their religious faith and by teaching English to the younger members of the Abu Sayyaf group. She says they will never be able to replace the year away from their own three children. The children are staying with their grandparents, and Mrs. Burnham says they are doing as well as can be expected. But she says they are ready for their parents to come home.