Options on U.S. hostage open; army ready

MANILA, Reuters

The Philippines said on Thursday it was studying all options to secure the release of an American hostage whom Muslim rebels have threatened to behead, and the army said it was prepared to move in if peaceful means failed.

Officials also said witness accounts indicated the hostage, Jeffrey Schilling, 24, may have gone voluntarily to the rebel camp on the southern island of Jolo, where a Filipino and six European hostages kidnapped months ago are still being held.

“You cannot foreclose any options at this point. But we’re not saying that the military option is now being considered,” presidential spokesman Ricardo Puno told reporters when asked if a military rescue was a possibility.

“We’re simply saying that first, the route of negotiations will be tried but any other options after that will depend on the circumstances at that point…It’s not only a simple assault into the kidnapping lair that you immediately implement. There are many different ways of skinning a cat,” he added.

The government has also rejected a rebel demand for representatives from mainland China, Iraq, Libya and North Korea to take part in talks for Schilling’s release, Puno said.

Officials said the United States had not asked Manila to preclude the use of the military in freeing Schilling, who has been held by the Abu Sayyaf rebels since Monday.

The rebels have threatened to behead Schilling, a Muslim, if the United States does not release three Islamic fundamentalists jailed for the 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center.

In April, the guerrillas beheaded two Filipino hostages after Manila previously rejected their demands.

“We are just waiting for orders from the commander-in-chief (President Joseph Estrada) and down the armed forces’ hierarchy,” southern military chief General Diomedio Villanueva said when asked about a possible rescue raid.

“We are clearing the way for a peaceful solution. This will stay but if ordered, we are ready, Villanueva added.

Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado dismissed as “out of this world” a rebel demand for intermediaries from China, Libya, North Korea and Iraq to take part in the negotiations.

“If they want all of those countries together, maybe they have to go to the Olympics where there will be a gathering of more countries,” Mercado said.

Libya has been closely involved in the recent release of other Western hostages on Jolo but it is not immediately clear why the rebels now want to involve other countries.

Schilling, from Oakland, California, is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and majored in Near Eastern studies. He is married to local Muslim woman.

The U.S. embassy urged the rebels to free Schilling on humanitarian grounds, saying “there is no advantage in continuing to hold (him).”

“He has some health problems and requires prescription medication,” the spokesman said. He had no details on the nature of the illness.