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Philippine Forces Seek Hostages

May 1, 2000

ISABELA, Philippines (AP) _ Rosebert and Lydda Ajon were riding a motorcycle home from the elementary school where they teach when they were stopped by a band of Muslim rebels who had just attacked a nearby military outpost.

The couple, along with 50 other teachers and students, were forced to serve as human shields for the Abu Sayyaf rebels’ escape.

Six weeks later, they are at the center of a hostage crisis that has put an end to the obscurity of the Philippines’ long-simmering Muslim separatist rebellion.

Over the weekend, Philippine soldiers overran the Abu Sayyaf’s sprawling mountain stronghold on southern Basilan island, but are still searching for the Ajons and 25 other remaining hostages.

Meanwhile, a separate group of Abu Sayyaf rebels on the neighboring island of Jolo are holding 21 other hostages, including 10 foreign tourists, kidnapped April 23 from Malaysia. A kidnapper told a local radio station today that a South African woman had collapsed and several other hostages were suffering from fevers.

The kidnappings have put the country’s 30-year Muslim rebellion on front pages around the world, spooked Philippine financial markets, and instilled a new urgency in the government’s peace efforts.

But critics say the government’s hard-line response to recent attacks by Islamic rebels has nearly sunk prospects for peace in the impoverished southern Mindanao region, the home of the country’s Muslim minority.

While the Abu Sayyaf kidnappings have focused attention on the insurgency _ which has killed more than 120,000 people in three decades _ the group is the smaller of two Muslim separatist groups, with 200 fighters and little public support.

The Abu Sayyaf, with roots in an organization founded in 1972 by Iranian missionaries spreading the teachings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has been blamed for many violent attacks in the southern Philippines _ including one in 1995 that killed 53 people and injured 100 others in the town of Ipil.

``The Abu Sayyaf are bandits masquerading as religious fundamentalists, giving Muslims a bad name,″ said military spokesman Col. Hilario Atendido.

The other, much larger rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, announced Sunday it would pull out of peace talks with the government. The group’s withdraw from the peace process is seen as a much more serious blow to peace in the region.

In the past three days, MILF forces and government troops have clashed outside the group’s headquarters in Maguindanao province. At least 36 guerrillas and four soldiers have been killed.

The rebels accused the government of attacking the camp, but military officials said they were only trying to remove 700 guerrillas who had blocked a main road along the camp’s boundary and were extorting money from motorists.

Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado said he hoped the MILF’s decision was ``just a temporary setback to the peace talks,″ which began earlier this year. But he said the military will continue attacks to stop the rebels from violating the law.

The MILF warned that if the attacks continue, it will respond with counterattacks in major southern cities.

``The possibility is that the war ... will be escalated to other areas,″ MILF vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar told The Associated Press.

The military says the MILF has up to 5,000 well-armed fighters in the camp, while the guerrillas claim twice that number. A major battle would greatly escalate tension in Mindanao, where 17 million of the Philippines’ 74 million people live.

President Joseph Estrada has pledged to turn the resource-rich region into the nation’s food basket. Lasting peace will only be realized, he said Sunday, ``when our brother Muslims have equal access to development opportunities.″

Currently, per capital annual income in southern Mindanao is $200, compared to an average of more than $1,000 nationwide.

But Estrada has also taken a hard-line on the rebels, warning of an ``all-out war″ if guerrilla attacks don’t stop.

``If they want peace in Mindanao, we will give them peace,″ he said Sunday. ``But if the rebels there persist in carrying out terrorist acts, we will not hesitate to apply to them the full force of the law.″

But by focusing on the conflict with the rebel groups, critics say, the government is losing sight of the deeper problems of Mindanao’s Muslims, such as decades of discrimination and government neglect.

``This is not leading to peace. Everybody knows that a military solution is not the solution to what is happening in Mindanao,″ said Inday Santiago, a member of the Mindanao Council of Women Leaders, an independent women’s group.

Rosebert Ajon’s family waits anxiously for the couple’s return. Both his father, Roberto, and mother, Rosario, have given up their jobs because of their worries.

``We can’t do anything but pray,″ Rosario says. ``I don’t want them to die because God knows they did nothing wrong.″

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