- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

CEBU, Philippines A Philippine Senate panel, in a draft report, has recommended that three military officers be court-martialed for purported collusion with Muslim terrorists who held three Americans hostage.

The officers a general, a colonel and a major should be charged for "misbehavior before the enemy and … recklessness and negligence" in connection with the June 2, 2001, escape of al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf guerrillas from a hospital on Basilan island in the far southwestern Philippines, said the report, which is endorsed by the chairman of the Senate Committee on National Defense.

The terrorists stormed the hospital the previous day, bringing with them 20 hostages including Americans Guillermo Sobero, a tourist from California, and Gracia and Martin Burnham, Philippine-based missionaries. Mr. Sobero was beheaded by his kidnappers less than a month later. Mr. Burnham was killed by his captors during a rescue attempt that freed Mrs. Burnham on June 7 of this year.

A debate has raged here for more than a year over whether incompetence or collusion allowed the Abu Sayyaf to escape the military cordon that surrounded the hospital on Lamitan, where the kidnappers first brought the hostages they took in a May 27, 2001, raid on a dive resort on a neighboring island.

The Rev. Cirilo Nacorda, a Lamitan-based Catholic priest once held hostage himself by the Abu Sayyaf, told the panel that senior military officers cut a deal to accept cash in return for letting the terrorists escape. He was one of 50 witnesses called during a protracted investigation of the incident.

Army Maj. Gen. Romeo Dominguez, the senior officer recommended for court-martial, denied any wrongdoing.

"My conscience is clear," the general, who won a promotion to the two-star rank despite the incident, said in a statement released yesterday. "I have never betrayed my oath."

The draft report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, found "strong circumstantial evidence" to support the charges of collusion between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Abu Sayyaf during the standoff. The two other officers recommended for courts-martial were Col. Juvenal Narcise and Maj. Eliseo Campued.

A lull in the fighting between the guerrillas and the military on that day in June 2001 allowed the Abu Sayyaf to slip into the jungle with their hostages in tow. The panel's draft report questioned the decision of military commanders to refuse to send reinforcements and to call soldiers away during the standoff to attend a briefing.

More than 1,200 U.S. troops arrived in the Philippines in January for joint training exercises intended to help prepare local troops to rescue the Burnhams and wipe out the Abu Sayyaf. When a Philippine patrol attempted a rescue June 7, Mr. Burnham and another hostage, local nurse Ediborah Yap, were killed by their captors.

The kidnapping of the Burnhams and Mr. Sobero came a year after a similar hostage-taking incident, during which the Abu Sayyaf stormed a resort in Malaysia and took their hostages to the Philippines. Those hostages were released after Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi arranged ransom payments of nearly $20 million.

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