Philippines in dogfight with wily, cash-rich rebels

Thursday, government troops widened their search for Muslim guerrillas on a second Philippine island.

It's early morning when the planes take off on their first bombing mission of the day. A pair of US-made OV-10 Broncos, each armed with rockets and a 250-pound bomb, head out across an azure sea toward the jungle-clad slopes of Jolo Island, less than a hundred miles to the southwest.

Nearly two weeks after the raids began, the roar of the jets leaving Zamboanga is almost the only visible evidence of President Joseph Estrada's faltering offensive against the Abu Sayyaf rebels, remnants of a former Muslim separatist group.

Some 5,000 soldiers, marines, and police have been deployed to scour the rugged, volcanic peaks that dominate Jolo's mountainous interior. But the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas - thought to number several hundred - are masters of evasion. Instead of confronting the troops, they have split into several groups, making it easier for them and the 17 hostages they still hold to melt away into the forest. The gunmen know every inch of the terrain, including caves and other hideouts.

According to the military commander in Jolo, Gen. Narciso Abaya, his mission "is like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack."

The authorities have pointedly refused to put a figure on the cost of the Jolo mission, but analysts say it's a sum the Philippine economy can barely afford, certainly not in the long term.

Judging by the accounts of local aid workers, the bombs and shells have caused far more harm to civilians than to the Abu Sayyaf. Amid the continuing bombardment, some 37,000 people have fled their homes to shelter in overcrowded evacuation centers in Jolo town.

The Red Cross and other agencies - which are denied access to some areas - say the effects of the military operation on civilians have been disastrous.

Worst hit are a group of villages clustered to the northeast and south of Jolo town, where the Abu Sayyaf had their main strongholds.

According to local residents, even as the guerrillas made good their escape, the shell-and-mortar fire destroyed hundreds of homes, and killed and injured dozens of people. On Sept. 18, Amnesty International called for an immediate halt to what it termed "the indiscriminate bombing of the civilian population." The armed forces command says only two civilians have died and four others have been injured since the offensive began.

Either way, the truth is hard to come by. A naval blockade surrounds the island, and the military has barred journalists from traveling there. Filipino reporters who were taken on a brief and tightly controlled visit to Jolo on Monday were not allowed to leave the main town. The news blackout has worried many, including church leaders and legislators who initially supported the decision to use force against the Abu Sayyaf.

One senior figure in the House of Representatives, Sergio Apostol, said the blackout "sends the wrong signals to the public, and is being used by the Abu Sayyaf for their own propaganda."

More tellingly, the military's clumsiness has further alienated a largely Muslim local population already sympathetic to the Abu Sayyaf. That in turn has made the vital task of gleaning intelligence to help locate the fleeing guerrillas almost impossible. "You should not endanger the lives of people who would help you,"says retired General Delfin Castro, who led an offensive against Muslim rebels in Jolo in the 1970s.

According to Gen. Castro, unless such assistance is forthcoming, the operation to rescue the hostages and crush the Abu Sayyaf could take several months - far longer than the one-week timetable initially stipulated by President Estrada.

Yesterday, as Filipino troops widened their search for rebels on a second island, a government spokesmen in Manila told reporters that "It's still not a foregone conclusion that it can be concluded in two weeks."

Even the hawks in the Estrada government admit things are not going to plan. But they say there's no turning back. "We will stay as long as is needed," said Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado on Wednesday. "Our advantage is we have the superior force, and we are willing to operate as long as it takes to solve this problem finally."

However, "the problem" has been like a revolving door that won't stop. The 17 remaining hostages have been in captivity for varying amounts of time. Thirteen are Filipino evangelical Christians who went voluntarily to the kidnappers' lair in July, saying they wanted to pray and fast for the release of the original group of mainly foreign hostages kidnapped from a Malaysian diving resort in April. Three other hostages are Malaysians, kidnapped from another diving resort Sept. 10.

American hostage Jeffrey Schilling, a University of California-Berkeley graduate, got caught up in the kidnapping saga reportedly because of his fascination with Islamic revolution and an Internet romance. In pursuit of his on-line affair with a Filipina woman, Ivi Osani, Mr. Schilling, who converted to Islam in 1996, arrived in the southern Philippines in March. The couple were married soon afterward.

Ms. Osani, it turned out, had close family connections with the Abu Sayyaf, and it was through her that she and her American husband were invited to Jolo to visit members of the group in late August. Various theories emerged about Schilling's kidnapping, including that he's an arms dealer. But many here believe Schilling was led into a trap. He was taken hostage by his wife's cousin, Abu Sabaya, who promptly demanded $10 million for his release. The US government has said it will not cave in to the rebels' demands.

As the military offensive meanders, calls for a negotiated solution look certain to grow. Although initially popular among the Philippines' predominantly Roman Catholic population, enthusiasm for President Estrada's tough new strategy could wane fast, especially if the reports of significant civilian casualties are borne out, and as the financial costs of the operation mount.

The Philippine leader himself, while clearly reveling in the sort of tough-guy role that once brought him fame as a movie star, has not ruled out the possibility of a cease-fire and talks with the Abu Sayyaf leaders - but only if all the hostages are released.

For some observers, the military option was doomed from the outset, and not just because of the operational difficulties facing the Army.

According to the Rev. Angel Calvo, a Spanish missionary who's spent more than 30 years in the southern Philippines, it was presumptuous of the government to imagine that the Army could eradicate a kidnapping industry which - fuelled by poverty and other factors - has flourished for generations.

"Unfortunately, it has developed into a culture of violence in which the gun has been the symbol of livelihood, even a symbol of manhood," says Fr. Calvo. "Once you have a gun, this is a very profitable way of living, to kidnap a foreigner or any prominent figure, because you know somebody will pay."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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