- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 8, 2002

CEBU, Philippines American hostage Martin Burnham, who endured more than a year of brutal captivity in the malaria-infested jungles of the southern Philippines, was killed yesterday during a firefight between local soldiers and Muslim terrorists.
Mr. Burnham's wife, Gracia, was rescued during the operation and airlifted to a military hospital for treatment of a bullet wound in her right leg, said Gen. Roy Cimatu, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
But another hostage, Philippine nurse Ediborah Yap, also was killed in the battle that left four Abu Sayyaf guerrillas dead and seven Philippines soldiers wounded in Zamboanga del Norte province in the southern Philippines. No U.S. troops, who are here for joint training exercises, were involved in the operation.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo made the difficult call to Mr. Burnham's parents, also missionaries in the Philippines, who returned to Wichita, Kan., to care for the couple's three young children.
"This has been a long and painful trial for them, for our government, for our country," Mrs. Arroyo said afterward.
"Our soldiers tried their best to hold their fire for safety," she said. "We shall not stop until the Abu Sayyaf is finished."
The Burnhams had served as missionaries in the Philippines for 17 years, affiliated with the U.S.-based New Tribes Mission.
Col. Renato Padua, leader of the rescue operation, said the rebels executed Mr. Burnham and Miss Yap as his troops moved in.
The encounter with 50 heavily armed Muslim separatists took place at 2:30 p.m. adjacent to a logging camp near the town of Siraway in Zamboanga Del Norte in western Mindanao, a giant southern island adjacent to tiny Basilan island, where 5,000 Philippine troops backed by U.S. advisers and surveillance equipment had focused the hunt for the hostages.
An elite, U.S.-trained unit had been tracking an Abu Sayyaf faction in Zamboanga del Norte for about two weeks after intelligence reports suggested that at least one of the Burnhams might have been spirited off Basilan island, the Abu Sayyaf lair, to a rural village on the Zamboanga peninsula. The military unit had night-vision goggles, headset communications gear and other equipment provided by the Americans. U.S. helicopters evacuated the wounded.
[In Washington, a senior Pentagon official said the Philippine government gave this version of events: A Philippine unit was conducting a night patrol, and "by chance" came across a group of Abu Sayyaf terrorists moving the hostages from one point to another. A firefight ensued. The hostages' location had not been known. The encounter was not part of a planned raid.]
It is not clear whether a $5 million reward offered May 29 by the United States for the capture of the top Abu Sayyaf leaders led to any fresh leads.
Lt. Gen. Narcisco Abaya, deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, told a television interviewer that Mr. Burnham, 43, was killed on the spot, while Miss Yap, who was hit in the neck, died on the way to a military hospital.
Mrs. Burnham, 43, underwent surgery in the southern city of Zamboanga, said Maj. Gen. Ernesto Carolina, commander of Philippines forces in the south. Doctors said a bullet passed through her thigh.
"I was so happy when I got out of the jungle," Mrs. Burnham, told doctors as they treated her. She said she believed her husband's death was part of God's plan.
"That is God's liking. That is probably his destiny," she said.
Mrs. Burnham was flown last night from Zamboanga to Manila, where the U.S. Embassy will take over arrangements to fly her to the United States, said Maj. Richard Sater, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Zamboanga.
From Washington, President Bush called the Burnham family to offer condolences, and he also spoke with Mrs. Arroyo.
"She assured me that the Philippine government would hold the terrorist group accountable for how they treated these Americans that justice would be done," Mr. Bush said.
Roilo Golez, the national security adviser, said the rescue of Mrs. Burnham and the deaths of the other two hostages means the fight against the terrorists can kick into high gear.
"Now that they are no longer hostages," he said, "the nature of the operations will be to destroy the Abu Sayyaf group."
It is not clear how the kidnappers slipped through a military cordon on Basilan, a rugged, mountainous and heavily forested island, and escaped to Zamboanga del Norte.
The Burnhams and another American, Guillermo Sobero, were taken hostage May 27, 2001, from a dive resort on Palawan, an island in the Sulu Sea. The rebels fled by sea with the Americans and more than a dozen other hostages to Basilan, where the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf movement was founded.
When they landed four days later, they kidnapped Miss Yap and several other nurses. Mr. Sobero, a Californian on vacation in the Philippines, was beheaded by the guerrillas last June. Most of the other hostages were ransomed by their families or escaped during encounters with the military.
"They were really good people," said Joel Guillo, a hospital worker and former hostage who spent five months in the jungles with the Burnhams before escaping during a firefight in November. "They refused the Abu Sayyaf demands to convert to Islam. But still it seemed that many of their kidnappers liked them. They were even teaching some to speak better English."
After the September 11 terrorists attacks on the United States and the onset of war in Afghanistan, the southern Philippines became the second front in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Some 1,000 U.S. troops, including 160 Green Berets, were sent to Cebu and to Zamboanga City. Some were forward deployed on Basilan island, where the Burnhams are believed to have spent most of their time in captivity. The U.S. troops are allowed to fire their weapons only in self-defense.

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