- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2002

LAMITAN, Philippines (AP) Guarded by snipers on rooftops, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo raised the Philippine flag yesterday in a southern town that was once the scene of bloody gunbattles with hostage-taking Muslim rebels.
The Independence Day ceremony outside Lamitan's town hall pockmarked from the firefights last year was part of the government's campaign to show it was winning the war against Abu Sayyaf guerrillas.
Dressed in a maroon business suit with a multicolored, Muslim-design scarf over her shoulder, Mrs. Arroyo made no comments as she raised the flag to mark the 104th year of independence from Spanish colonial rule. Spain ruled the Philippines for 377 years.
Black-clad snipers watched from the town hall's roof, and officers said soldiers were deployed nearby, ready to fend off a surprise attack on the Basilan island town.
Mrs. Arroyo, who later flew back to Manila, was the first president to raise the flag on Independence Day in the southern Philippines. Predominantly Muslim Basilan is about 560 miles south of Manila.
Last year, the rebels celebrated the holiday by presenting her with what their brash leader, Abu Sabaya, called a "gift": the beheading of hostage Guillermo Sobero, a tourist from Corona, Calif.
A major turning point in the fight against the Abu Sayyaf came Friday when Philippine troops attacked a group holding Filipina nurse Ediborah Yap and U.S. missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham of Wichita, Kan. The American couple were abducted with Mr. Sobero at a resort island on May 27, 2001.
Mrs. Burnham was rescued, but her husband and Miss Yap, whose hometown was Lamitan, were killed in the rescue attempt on nearby Mindanao island.
The three were the last of 102 hostages seized by Abu Sayyaf over the past year. Some escaped or were released. Eighteen were killed, mostly beheaded or hacked to death.
The guerrillas disappeared into the jungles of Mindanao, but the military promised to step up the fight because it no longer had to worry about harming hostages. The offensive is focusing on the southern islands of Basilan, Jolo and Mindanao.
The Philippine forces are being assisted by about 1,000 U.S. military personnel, who are training and advising the troops as well as working on engineering projects such as repairing roads.

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