- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

CEBU, Philippines An offer by Muslim rebels to release a Philippine hostage in return for a cease-fire has been rejected by a local army commander, fueling speculation that government troops may have the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf terrorists cornered in the southern Philippines.

Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu, who heads the Philippine army's Southern Command, said his troops would continue their pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf holding three hostages on the southern-island province of Basilan, according to a military spokesman

About 160 U.S. Special Forces troops are on Basilan and at a nearby army base, advising Gen. Cimatu and his men.

Abu Sayyaf leaders are demanding $1 million each for Gracia and Martin Burnham, an American missionary couple seized during a raid on a beach resort in May.

The couple, longtime residents of the Philippines, are in poor health after nearly a year of being dragged in chains through the dense jungles of Basilan.

Elite Philippine troops have clashed with the rebels almost daily during the past week, leading to casualties on both sides. But after more than two years of tracking the secessionist rebels-turned kidnappers, military commanders believe they have at last located the enemy, in large part due to intelligence gathered by Predator drones, unmanned surveillance planes provided by the Americans.

"It's a great help to be able to pinpoint the terrorists," said a Western envoy, who requested anonymity. "But it's another issue entirely to get the hostages out alive."

The government of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has refused to negotiate with the Abu Sayyaf, founded more than a decade ago by a Filipino who fought in Afghanistan alongside many of those who later formed the core of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.

The rebels turned to kidnapping several years ago, getting nearly $20 million for a group of mostly foreign hostages taken from a dive resort in neighboring Malaysia.

The group's historical links to al Qaeda and its kidnapping of Americans, one of whom was beheaded by the rebels in June, prompted President Bush to offer U.S. military equipment and advisers for what many are calling the "second front" in the war on terrorism.

On Sunday, Martin Burnham's father and the couple's children issued an appeal to the kidnappers.

"We are hoping that they will be released soon," Paul Burnham told Radio Mindanao Network. "The children really do miss their parents."

One of the Burnham children, John Paul, addressed his parents directly over the network that has conducted frequent mobile phone interviews with the kidnappers.

"Dad and Mom, if you are listening now, I want you to know that I love and miss you and pray for you every day," the boy said.

While some analysts believe that the clashes during the past week indicate that terrorists are on the ropes, others speculate that the group may be surfacing in an effort to grab fresh hostages. The lone Filipina being held by the group, Ediborah Yap, was nabbed along with others only days after the Burnhams were taken.

The United States has nearly 700 soldiers in the Philippines as part of a six-month training exercise in support of the Philippine military's pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf. The Special Forces troops are on Basilan and in the nearby port city of Zamboanga on the island of Mindanao. Those troops are armed and can fire in self-defense but are not intended to go into combat.

About 500 support troops are based in Cebu, in the central Philippines. Ten American soldiers died in a helicopter crash last month while returning to their Cebu base.

While the pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf continues, both U.S. and Philippine troops are under the scrutiny of a self-appointed international fact-finding group, led by Walden Bello, a prominent leftist professor at the University of the Philippines, who has expressed concerned that Basilan is becoming "another Afghanistan."

Roilo Golez, the presidential national security adviser, has dismissed the mission as a "fault-finding frenzy."

"They will see human rights violations in everything, the military, both the Philippine and U.S., does, but will see no evil in the ways of the Abu Sayyaf," Mr. Golez told the Philippine Inquirer.

One member of the fact-finding mission is Earl Martin, a professor at the Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

"We certainly empathized with victims of violence like the kidnappings," Mr. Martin told the newspaper. "But we need to look at the problem in a perspective with less casualties or further destruction of human lives, and it can only be resolved through dialogue and respect."

But to many of the people in Basilan who have welcomed the U.S. troops with open arms, outsiders like Mr. Bello and Mr. Martin are an annoyance.

"The time for dialogue is over," Joel Guillo, who was held by the Abu Sayyaf for five months, said in a recent interview in Basilan. "They only understand one thing, and that's force.

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