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20 Tourists Abducted in Philippines

May 27, 2001

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ The Philippine military launched a massive search by air and sea Sunday after ski-masked gunmen raided an upscale resort at dawn, then fled by boat with about 20 hostages, including three American tourists.

The kidnappers headed south into the Mindanao Sea, either toward islands that are home to Muslim extremists who took foreign hostages last year or toward Malaysia, which offered cooperation to the Philippines.

Several hours later, military chief Diomedio Villanueva said the group apparently had been tracked down. But as dark fell, the airplanes were recalled for the night, and the government would not say if it knew where the group was for certain. The sea search was continuing.

Villanueva said officials believed they knew who the kidnappers were, but he would not identify them. Speculation has focused on Abu Sayyef, the Islamic rebel group that raided a Malaysian tourist resort and took 10 foreign tourists hostage on April 23, 2000. All those hostages since been freed, some reportedly for large ransoms.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered ``all-out war″ on Abu Sayyaf in early April, but military officials said the separatist organization has regrouped in the last two weeks.

There were concerns about the hostages’ safety if a showdown developed, said Arroyo’s spokesman, Rigoberto Tiglao.

``The president condemns this dastardly criminal act of desperate, ruthless bandits,″ Tiglao said. Vowing no negotiations or ransom, he said the attackers seem to have taken advantage of the widespread deployment of police and troops to stem violence related to May 14 elections.

Final results have not been released as vote totals slowly filter in from far-flung parts of the country.

The kidnappings took place at the Dos Palmas Island Resort at Honda Bay in Palawan province, about 375 miles southwest of Manila.

Military officials said two dozen men in ski masks took guests and resort staffers at gunpoint in a raid that lasted about 15 minutes. The guests were believed to include 13 Chinese Filipinos, three Americans and at least one child.

Two of the Americans were identified as Martin and Gracia Burnham, missionaries from Wichita, Kan., who have lived in the Philippines since 1986 and have been working for the New Tribes Mission, said Tim Grossman, who was at the organization’s Manila office Sunday.

Martin has spent most of his live in the Philippines, Grossman said, and the couple _ both children of missionaries _ had been living in Nueva Vizcaya province in the northern part of the country. He said mission members heard of the abduction while at church.

``Our folks were on a break at the resort, and had just been there for one day. It looks like they happened to be in the wrong place, I think,″ said Scott Ross, a mission spokesman. Ross, who spoke from the mission’s headquarters in Sanford, Fla., said the couple has three children, but would not say where they were.

Ross said the mission is Protestant but not affiliated with any particular denomination. He said it was founded in 1942 and now has about 3,500 missionaries in 27 countries.

The other American was listed in the resort guestbook as Guillermo Sobero, who was to mark his 40th birthday on Tuesday.

``We are in close contact with Philippine officials and we look to the Philippine government to secure the safe release of the victims,″ a U.S. Embassy statement said. ``Americans traveling in the Philippines should review their security arrangements and check with the U.S. Embassy for the latest security information.″

Military officials said planes and navy ships were deployed to search for the abductors and their captives in Mindanao’s high seas, many areas of which have long been plagued by Muslim separatists, pirates and other outlaws.

``Don’t worry. We’re doing everything we can to get them,″ added Capt. Djo Jalandoni, with the military’s western command.

Jalandoni said the abductors might be headed to Jolo Island, where Abu Sayyaf is based. A guard at Dos Palmas, Rudy Gorgonia, said the abductors spoke Tausug, a dialect spoken in southern Jolo.

Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes offered a reward of $20,000 for information leading to the captives’ release.

Malaysian Ambassador Manzoor Hussein Arshad said the Philippines had asked for help in preventing the boat from entering Malaysian waters. Malaysia’s national news agency, Bernama, reported that security forces in Sabah state on Borneo island have been put on high alert.

A staffer at the 50-acre island resort, contacted by telephone by The Associated Press, said police and the military have secured Dos Palmas. Opened in 1998, it has about 50 hotel rooms and seaside cottages _ some built on stilts in a bay.

A military spokesman, Edilberto Adan, said Sunday’s kidnappings appear to be unconnected to two attacks this past week.

On Thursday, armed men abducted a ferry carrying 42 people, later releasing the passengers but keeping four sailors. Police said the abductors were likely members of Abu Sayyaf, which says it is fighting for a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

On Tuesday, dozens of gunmen tried to storm a tourist resort, killing two workers. Investigators originally suspected Abu Sayyaf, but Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon blamed pirates trying to capture a speedboat.

Update hourly