Philippines says ready to attack rebel hideout

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines, Reuters

The Philippines said on Thursday Muslim rebels holding 20 hostages might have taken their captives to a mountain hideout in the country’s south, and the local military commander said he was prepared to attack.

“We’re just waiting for an initial positive contact and we’ll get them,” area commander Brigadier-General Romeo Dominguez said in a television interview after reports that the kidnappers had slipped through a naval blockade and taken their three American and 17 Filipino hostages to their main base on Basilan island.

Basilan provincial governor Wahab Akbar warned an army attack could result in heavy casualties.

“The Philippines must be prepared to sacrifice many lives,” Akbar said.

The military said personal items recovered on Basilan, an island stronghold of the fundamentalist Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, suggested the possible presence there of the rebels and their hostages, who have been the object of a land, air and sea search by security forces since Sunday’s dawn kidnap.

“We are still verifying whether these items came from the hostages or from other visitors on the island,” military spokesman Brigadier-General Edilberto Adan told reporters.

“It’s possible they have reached Basilan. It’s very possible they are there now,” Adan said, referring to the mountainous, heavily forested island where the Abu Sayyaf is known to enjoy considerable support from the area’s largely Muslim population.

This would confirm that the rebels, who took their hostages from a resort on Palawan island, had broken through a cordon of naval gunboats and sea-borne police search teams, backed by helicopters and reconnaissance planes.

If confirmed to be on Basilan, the guerrillas would apparently have raced through 480 km (300 miles) of water on two speedboats — each equipped with three engines of 200 horsepower — at speeds of 40 knots an hour, outrunning the fastest Philippine Navy boat.

Adan did not specify what the recovered items were but said troopers had also found a luggage tag and a speed boat abandoned by the kidnappers on another island nearby.

Earlier, the military reported the recovery of a camera and an ATM card apparently belonging to the hostages.

Adan did not say how many hostages might have been taken by their captors to Basilan.

The Abu Sayyaf, who claimed responsibility for the kidnapping as early as Monday, had said they split their captives into two groups, taking one group to Basilan and another to Jolo, another rebel bastion.

The guerrillas appeared to have used the same tactic they employed last year when they seized about two dozen mostly foreign hostages from nearby Malaysian resorts and took them on speedboats to Jolo, slipping through naval patrols.

They also kidnapped several other people on Jolo, including foreign journalists, triggering a hostage crisis that lasted for months, to Manila’s deep embarrassment.

Local officials say the Abu Sayyaf received about US$20 million in ransom payments before most of the hostages were freed. Others escaped or were rescued by soldiers.

Adan said the Philippine and U.S. government had held talks on cooperation to resolve the new hostage crisis but he ruled out asking U.S. troops for help in attacking the rebel hideout.

“The Philippine government considers this as internal so that commitment of any ground troops will come from the armed forces of the Philippines,” he said. “The nature of assistance will have to be in the area of information gathering.”