Since the September 11 attacks, the global war on terrorism has focused attention on a shadowy conflict in a remote part of the southern Philippines. The conflict is between government troops and a rebel group called Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network. More than 600 U.S. troops have been sent to Basilan island, south of Manila, to help equip and train Philippine soldiers. VOA correspondent Scott Bobb has the story from Basilan.
In the forests of Basilan, Philippine rangers hunt for Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. At their base in the forest, the soldiers drill with live ammunition, practicing what to do in an ambush.
They search the mountain island looking for Abu Sayyaf rebels who, for a decade, have terrorized this island of 300,000 people through murder and kidnapping for ransom.
The rebels say they are fighting for an Islamic State. The government says they are criminals. Hundreds of people, Muslim and Christian, have been killed in the violence. The soldiers complain that the Abu Sayyaf, rich with ransom money, have newer, more sophisticated equipment. What they need is modern, high-tech gear. The U.S. government is giving it to them.
A few kilometers outside the provincial capital, Isabela, lies Basilan's public hospital that provides free health care to poor residents. Muslims and Christians alike come for treatment. One of the doctors here was also one of the Abu Sayyaf's first victims.
Nilo Barandino and 10 family members were kidnapped in 1992 and were held for months. Some were severely brutalized, before a ransom was paid and they were released.
Dr. Barandino is also the local coroner. He keeps meticulous records, hoping one day they will help convict the rebels. "These pictures will really help us identify each and every kidnapper," he said. "Now if only the victims of the kidnap will have the same file, I think we'll be able to arrest them."
Another victim of the Abu Sayyaf is Father Loi Nacorda, who heads the St. Joseph parish in Lamitan, a town up the coast. Father Loi was kidnapped in 1994. But he received national attention more recently when he accused local military leaders of collaborating with the Abu Sayyaf.
Abu Sayyaf rebels invaded Father Loi?s parish last June. Five parishioners were killed and the church was heavily damaged.
The rebels occupied the parish hospital. They brought 22 hostages, including three Americans, seized from a tourist resort. The rebels took nurses and patients hostage as well. Government troops surrounded the parish and launched an attack.
But Father Loi says 18 hours later the battle suddenly ended; government troops at the back of the compound withdrew. According to witnesses, an hour later the rebels left with the hostages through a small door in the wall, and escaped into the forest. "When they came out, they were just walking casually," he said.
The soldiers said they had been summoned to a briefing. But local residents and a dozen lightly armed volunteers who were left behind don't believe it. "That is very clear to us here, very clear, that there was really a communication between the Abu Sayyaf and some military officials for them to be able to escape," he said.
Father Loi added the hostages who later escaped said they saw senior military officials give a satchel full of money to the rebels. "Ten million pesos, the amount of that money. And they even gave 5,000 pesos to the doctor for a little help to the hospital," he said.
Lamitan's Hospital was used by the army as a base during the incident. A doctor, Ernesto Sanson says he saw the attaché case, but not the money. Dr. Sanson, a Christian who converted to Islam, said the conflict is not over religion. "They would like to make it out as a Muslim-Christian conflict, but in fact it is not," he said.
He said the real problem is money and politics. "So most of us are doubting that really the military's maybe one of the causes of this."
The military officers deny the accusations. And government investigations have brought no charges.
Basilan Governor Wahab Anbar says the charges are politically motivated. "These people have been telling and spreading rumors. First, I say political," he said. "When I say political, they were frustrated because their party did not win the election."
Governor Wahab blames the violence on poverty, noting Basilan is one of the poorest provinces in the country.
"So what they feel is that they are neglected by the government or what they feel is that the government is not really concerned with their welfare," he said.
The government says it does care. Backed by international donors, it has launched many projects in the region. One pilot project is for the Badjaos, Muslim pearl gatherers who were driven from their homes by the violence. The government has built a village on stilts, like their traditional homes. It has also built a school, and a center that teaches the women to earn money by weaving traditional mats.
The men no longer gather pearls. Instead they now farm seaweed; a delicacy that is sold to local processors and exported to other countries in Asia. President Gloria Arroyo recently visited the Badjao village.
But critics say the projects help only a few and a lot of money is wasted.
The continuing violence led president Arroyo to authorize the U.S. military to help Philippine forces against the Abu Sayyaf. For the United States, this is another front in the war on terrorism.
The U.S. government sent 600 U.S. troops to train Philippine soldiers fighting the Abu Sayyaf and it's sending 100 million dollars worth of military equipment. U.S. green berets will spend most of the year in the forests of Basilan with the Philippine troops. Sergeant Major Jim Brey says it's a joint exercise. "It's a joint effort for us to improve our working relationships and also to help them aid, in going out and taking care of the problems that they've currently got with the terrorist organizations on Basilan," he said.
Many people in the Philippines welcome the Americans. They hope the U.S. forces will break the stalemate. But a vocal minority, like one group in Isabela, are vehemently opposed. "I would rather be an Abu Sayyaf lover than a Filipino as long as it's [the Phillipines] a partner to the U.S. regime," said one demonstrator.
Local leaders say the violence will not stop until deep-rooted grievances are addressed and people are given hope for a better life. Then and only then, they say, can they start to re-build a climate of trust and tolerance among the communities here.