Strikes by Philippines leader win resounding support

The military continued its four-day pounding of guerrilla strongholds yesterday.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Four days after the Philippine military began bombarding rebels in the southern island of Jolo, President Joseph Estrada is enjoying widespread support for efforts to root out a band of kidnappers who have humiliated the Philippines internationally.

In the two years since the former movie actor won the most votes in the history of free elections here, Mr. Estrada has been accused of everything from cronyism and manipulating the press to allowing foreign investors to leave the country in droves.

Today, the military action is restoring Estrada's popularity, which had slipped to near zero in recent public opinion surveys due to a perceived lack of governance.

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The president is receiving approval both locally and internationally to finish off the Abu Sayyaf, remnants of a former Filipino Muslim rebel group who have engaged in a wave of kidnappings for ransom. Since February, the Abu Sayyaf have abducted more than 100 victims.

Philippine businessmen, politicians, and newspapers rallied behind the president. The United States and Malaysia, which have nationals among the captives, gave their benign support. US Defense Secretary William Cohen, who was in Manila the day the assault began, made a statement that the US was not involved in the Philippine operation. Malaysia said it respected Manila's decision.

French President Jacques Chirac expressed his "concern and disagreement." The German government, whose three nationals were released by the kidnappers, issued a toned-down statement that it shared France's anxiety and concern.

An "unscientific" poll by CNN.com showed that 92 percent of nearly 7,000 Filipino respondents said Estrada "made the right choice to decisively end the five-month-long ordeal."

Despite a news blackout on the military operations - journalists are restricted to Zamboanga City, a half-hour flight to Jolo - the lively Manila press is not complaining. In an editorial, the Philippine Daily Inquirer - normally Estrada's severest critic - said: "We also urge the entire nation to support the government, and particularly the military...."

On Monday, the Philippine Senate unanimously passed a resolution expressing support for the military action. Opposition Sen. Raul Roco said the sooner the Abu Sayyaf is crushed, the better it is for the country.

Even Filipino Muslim leaders gave their support to Estrada. "The military should have launched the assault a long time ago," says Norma Pangandaman, a community leader of a Muslim- populated village in Taguig in the suburbs of the capital. Members of the Muslim community were outraged by the "banditry" of the Abu Sayyaf, says Ms. Pangandaman. Another Muslim leader in another suburb, Haji Nur Jafar, condemned the Abu Sayyaf for using the name of Islam to further the terrorist course.

The Abu Sayyaf achieved notoriety in April when they staged a raid on the Malaysian diving resort of Sipadan and kidnapped 21 mostly foreign tourists and Malaysian workers. The kidnappers are a splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which fought for an independent homeland until they signed a peace accord with the government in 1996. But with a lack of follow-through from the government - little development in the area and few jobs - the Abu Sayyaf has made a business of fighting. A larger splinter group of the MNLF, the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has called the Aby Sayyaf "lawless elements." Once a ragtag band of 300 to 400 men, the Abu Sayyaf's ranks have swelled to more than 4,000, the Philippine military says. New speedboats, guns, and communications have been acquired with ransom money.

Except for a Filipino worker, all the Sipadan prisoners were released after the Abu Sayyaf received payments of $15 million from Malaysia and Libya for the hostages. When the group abducted three Malaysians from another resort near Sipadan on Sept. 10, even as they were about to release two French journalists, Manila's patience snapped. "We negotiated patiently until the new hostage-taking," said a Malacaang Palace official. "They will not release all the hostages until they get additional ones, so this will be a never-ending cycle...."

The war is expected to exact a heavy toll among civilians in Jolo. State authorities have appealed for emergency food and medical supplies, and thousands are being displaced. But the public mood favors the military right now, as the Inquirer put it: "The military has been initially successful and deserves commendation. Now we await the conclusion of this long overdue operation."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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