- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2002

CEBU, Philippines Martin Burnham grew up in the Philippines, where he was following in footsteps of his fundamentalist Christian parents who had been missionaries here for more than three decades.

His 43-year-old wife, Gracia, had come to love the country and its people in the 16 years the couple worked with the U.S.-based New Tribes Mission, often flying a small private plane to remote tribal lands to deliver medicine, Bibles and other supplies.

So the prospect of travel for a rare holiday to a beach resort just off the coast of Palawan to celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary hardly seemed daunting. The island is in the far southwestern reaches of the archipelago.

But before dawn on May 27, 2001, they were awakened by screams and gunfire, taken hostage in a speedboat along with 18 other guests by a heavily armed faction of the Abu Sayyaf, a group of Muslim secessionists-turned-kidnappers who stormed the resort.

Five days later, after the boat conked out and the kidnappers commandeered an old wooden fishing boat, the terrified hostages stepped ashore on the remote island-province of Basilan, off the southern coast of Mindanao, where many of the country's 4 million Muslims live.

After raiding a hospital and slipping through a cordon of Philippine troops, the al Qaeda-linked terrorists forcibly marched their hostages out into the nearly impenetrable, malaria-infested jungles where the Burnhams will mark the end of their first year in captivity on Monday.

Despite the efforts of some 5,000 troops assigned to the Southern Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the presence of some 1,000 U.S. troops part of the "second front" in the U.S.-led war on terrorism the Burnhams appear no closer to freedom today than the day they were captured.

"There is no nine-tenths of the way," Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, commander of U.S. troops in the southern Philippines, told reporters earlier this month. "It's either you know where they are and you're acting on it, or you don't know where they are and you're looking for them. And we're looking for them."

There was hope in late March that the Burnhams might finally be set free after the United States following heated debate in Washington allowed $300,000 in private funds to be funneled to the rebels for the release of the Burnhams and Eidborah Yap, a Filipina nurse snatched days after the Burnhams were taken.

But the money was delivered to the wrong terrorist faction, according to an Abu Sayyaf spokesman, not to the 15- to 30-man unit holding the Burnhams. He demanded another $200,000 for the release of the Americans.

"They can start looking for the dead bodies," said Aldam Tilao, who goes by the nom de guerre "Abu Sabaya," to a local radio station two weeks ago. "The U.S. superpower can do nothing against us."

In June, Mr. Tilao called another radio station to offer Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo a gift to mark Independence Day. "We will be releasing one of the American hostages," he said, pausing for effect before adding, "without his head."

The Philippine military confirmed weeks later that Guillermo Sobero, a California tourist grabbed along with the Burnhams, had been beheaded.


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