President Joseph Estrada unleashed a full-scale military assault against Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines on Saturday, battering their jungle camps with several thousand troops, helicopter gunships, navy patrol ships, and armored personnel carriers.
Gen. Angelo Reyes, chief of armed forces, said yesterday that six Abu Sayyaf rebels had been killed and 20 suspected guerrillas captured at the rebels' stronghold on the island of Jolo, about 600 miles south of Manila. He also said that the 19 hostages held by the rebels were alive and well. "All the hostages, based on reports, are alive," he said.
The assault was a dramatic turnabout for Mr. Estrada, who had been taking a pragmatic approach toward the rebels since they began taking large numbers of hostages this spring, including about 20 people captured at a diving resort in Malaysia in April. Estrada was allowing local negotiators to deal with the rebels and arrange ransoms of up to $1 million per hostage.
But the president said in a brief television appearance Saturday that he had been forced to get tough with the rebels because their leaders had demonstrated flagrant disregard for the government's authority.
"It is clear that the efforts of our government toward a peaceful, long-term resolution of the problem are being scoffed at by the Abu Sayyaf group," he said.
Support for an assault has grown since Sept. 10, when an Abu Sayyaf faction abducted three more people from another Malaysian diving resort. That abduction was an embarrassment to Estrada's government both because the rebels had pledged to stop taking hostages while they were bargaining for the release of those already in their custody, and because the kidnappers were able to outrun Philippine authorities using a speedboat purchased with ransom money.
The Abu Sayyaf say they are seeking an independent Muslim state in the south of mainly the Roman Catholic Philippines. As of Saturday, various Abu Sayyaf factions were holding Jeffrey Schilling, of Oakland, Calif.; two French journalists; a Filipino captured in April; three Malaysians; and 12 Filipino Christian evangelists.
Mr. Schilling, who converted to Islam six years ago, was captured Aug. 29 after visiting an Abu Sayyaf camp. Schilling said he was taken hostage because rebels suspected that he was a CIA agent, which he denied. Rebel leaders threatened several times to behead him and demanded $10 million in ransom.
Negotiators estimate that, during the past four months, Abu Sayyaf has been paid more than $15 million, about $10 million by Libya, for the release of hostages. The trade has become so lucrative that it has begun to affect the exchange rate of the peso.
On Friday, rebels and government negotiators had reached tentative agreement on terms for return of the two French hostages. But the discussions appear to have hit a last-minute snag.
French President Jacques Chirac deplored Estrada's decision to use force in resolving the hostage problem. In a statement released in Paris, a spokesman expressed the French leader's "very deep anxiety and disagreement with this initiative, which is dangerous for the safety of the hostages."
The attack on Jolo, code named "Operation Sultan," began early Saturday. Helicopter gunships and other aircraft shelled guerrilla positions throughout the morning. About 3,000 troops were transported to the island and are reported to have closed in around rebel camps.
Abu Sayyaf rebels are thought to number about 5,000, although it is unclear how many are determined warriors.
Jolo's dense vegetation and steep terrain have thwarted Manila's efforts to quash the rebels over the years. About 95 percent of the island's 400,000 inhabitants are Muslim.
US Defense officials insist the presence of Defense Secretary William Cohen and 200 Special Forces soldiers in the Philippines is coincidence.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society