RP calls up U.S. help over hostage crisis


MANILA, AFP

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo said Friday she had called in U.S. government help as a crisis involving Muslim guerrillas holding 23 American and Filipino hostages intensified.

Arroyo’s announcement came as security forces said they were investigating a threat of terrorist bombings in the capital Manila to take the pressure off guerrillas under siege from pursuing troops on southern Basilan island.

“I have asked the U.S. to help with their surveillance expertise and in supplying us with some modern equipment and their response has been positive,” she said.

Arroyo did not elaborate on the type of assistance the United States was providing against the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim guerrilla band that has killed four Filipino hostages and claims to have beheaded one of three American captives.

Washington sent FBI agents to the Philippines soon after the hostages were taken nearly five weeks ago, but U.S. embassy spokesman Michael Anderson refused to disclose details of further aid.

“We remain in close touch with the government of the Philippines, which has the lead in resolving this situation, but I am not going to answer more specifically,” he said.

Police said the arrest in Manila of Abu Sayyaf intelligence officer Harsim Abdulajid had uncovered an apparent Abu Sayaff plan to stage a series of bombings in Manila.

Intelligence agencies were following leads “and we hope they get some results within three days or a week,” police spokesman Director-General Thompson Lantion said.

There have been repeated clashes on Basilan island in the past week with the death toll mounting to at least 39 as the armed forces said troops were nearing the rebel camp.

Three soldiers and an undetermined number of Abu Sayyaf gunmen were killed in two battles late Thursday. The rebel casualties were taken away by retreating Abu Sayyaf members, the military said.

The deaths raised the reported toll to 19 government soldiers and at least 20 Abu Sayyaf rebels, with more than 75 wounded on both sides in a month of fighting since the guerrillas embarked on a kidnapping spree.

Two of the most recent military fatalities were former Muslim rebels who joined the government forces as part of a 1996 peace accord between Manila and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The Abu Sayyaf are a breakaway faction of the MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which inked a truce with Manila last week.

A spokesman for the armed forces Southern Command accused remnants of the MILF and MNLF of supporting the Abu Sayyaf, and said the military could not be held responsible if the peace accords were breached.