- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

The U.S. government facilitated a payment of $300,000 through a third party in a bid to gain the release of two Americans held by the Philippine terrorist group Abu Sayyaf.
The transaction was completed before Easter, two senior administration officials said this week, but Abu Sayyaf as of yesterday had not shown signs of releasing Martin and Gracia Burnham, two American missionaires who were kidnapped 10 months ago.
The officials said the Pentagon opposed the secret, indirect payment, while the State Department supported it as a way to save the couple's lives and perhaps expose senior Abu Sayyaf members for capture.
There was hope the couple would be released Easter weekend, but they never appeared.
U.S. officials say the terrorist group's signature operation is to accept the ransom money, then release the hostages weeks later at a different location. Some analysts believe some of Abu Sayyaf's ransom proceeds are funneled to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network, which the United States says operates in 60 countries.
Philippine government officials have conducted back-channel discussions with Abu Sayyaf, an extremist Muslim guerrilla band with headquarters on Basilan island in the southern Philippines. The United States last year sent 600 military personnel to the area to train and advise the local armed forces in an attempt to hunt down and eliminate Abu Sayyaf guerrilla forces.
The Burnham case is the first significant test for a Bush administration policy on overseas American hostages. Approved in February, the policy commits the government to working to free all American hostages, not just U.S. officials. While adhering to long-standing opposition to paying ransom to kidnappers, the policy drops a blanket objection to private groups or family members making such payments.
The $300,000 payment technically came from a private organization, said sources, who added that they did not know exactly how the transfer to Abu Sayyaf was made.
One official said there is disappointment that the Burnhams have not been released. "The decision was made over Pentagon objections," said one senior administration official. "It was essentially State and the National Security Council deciding to do it. The bad guys got the money and we don't have the hostages."
Fox News Channel reported in late March that the United States had orchestrated a payment of $3 million in private funds for the Burnhams' release. But two officials said this week that the correct figure is $300,000.
The Philippine government denied any money had been paid.
A senior military official said yesterday the United States stills believes the Burnhams are alive. "We base that on shared intelligence and the information we receive on the ground and reasonable analysis," the source said.
At a State Department briefing in March, spokesman Richard Boucher refused to comment on the ransom report.
"There have been all kinds of rumors, in the Philippines and elsewhere, about people negotiating, things happening or not happening," he said. "And I'm afraid, because of our overriding interest in seeing the Burnhams safely released, I'm not going to start commenting on all those rumors."
A State Department spokeswoman said yesterday, "The words of Mr. Boucher were well crafted and that is our guidance."
A month earlier, when the new hostage policy was announced, Mr. Boucher said, "Paying ransom, allowing the terrorists to acquire benefits from hostage-taking, only encourages further hostage-taking.
"What may be a little different now is to say we will look at every kidnapping and every hostage-taking to consider what the U.S. government can do to gain the safe return of the individual, whether it's an official American or a private American," Mr. Boucher said.
Sources say the new policy allows for facilitating a ransom payment if the design is to increase the chances for capture and if there is an expectation the kidnappers will not get a chance to benefit from the proceeds.
Meanwhile, about 160 U.S. Army Green Berets remain on Basilan island to help some 5,000 Philippine troops hunt down Abu Sayyaf members.
"There are some indications that Abu Sayyaf has splintered into some very small segments," said a senior military official. "There is very aggressive action taken by the Philippine army."
The officials said that in the past 10 days the local army has raided safe houses, boats and other Abu Sayyaf holdings and come away with valuable intelligence.

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