Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has ordered intensified operations against Muslim rebels holding U.S. and Filipino hostages on the southern island of Basilan.
Arroyo, speaking at a meeting of securities analysts, said she had given the military and the police wide powers of arrest, allowing them to seize suspected rebel sympathizers and material believed to be going to the group.
“At midnight last night, I ordered an intensified crackdown against the Abu Sayyaf,” she said.
“The Armed Forces of the Philippines, working with the Philippine National Police, have taken the necessary measures to hasten the neutralization of the Abu Sayyaf terrorists and allied elements in the areas covered by Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-tawi and Zamboanga city.”
The areas are known to be rebel strongholds. The Abu Sayyaf professes to fight for a Muslim homeland in the south of mainly Roman Catholic country but its main pursuit is kidnap for ransom.
The group has been holding about 20 Filipinos and three American hostages, including missionary couple Gracia and Martin Burnham, for weeks on Basilan, a rugged island about three times the size of Singapore 900 km (560 miles) south of Manila.
The Abu Sayyaf said last month it had beheaded one of the Americans, Californian tourist Guillermo Sobero, but there has been no independent confirmation of the claim.
Arroyo said the measures she ordered included operations to identify and arrest Abu Sayyaf bandits, confiscate equipment and supplies and to separate the rebels from their supporters.
She defined supporters as those who provided ammunition, supplies, information, and sanctuary to the group.
“We expect these measures will help hasten the destruction of the terrorists groups…and we expect more arrests to be effected during the next few days.”
Justice Secretary Hernando Perez, in Zamboanga to oversee the prosecution of the arrested suspects, told a news conference 38 people had been arrested under the powers of arrest.
Other top security officials including Defence Secretary Angelo Reyes, were scheduled to join him on Saturday.
Asked what the charges would be, Perez said: “This will depend on the inquest. Probably the charges will range from kidnapping and harboring of criminals and aiding.” Armed Forces Southern Command Chief General Gregorio Camiling told the same news conference: “We have sightings of hostages. They (Abu Sayyaf) are using them as human shields.”
However, Camiling did not say when the sightings were made and he did not elaborate further.
Arroyo emphasized that there would be a continued drive to rescue the U.S. and Filipino hostages.
She denied that the new crackdown, which she said was entirely within the constitution, was ordered to coincide with the visit of U.S. Admiral Dennis Blair, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, who is in Manila for annual defense talks.
At a separate news conference, Philippine armed forces Chief of Staff Diomedio Villanueva said American forces were not involved in the operation in the south.
“The Philippines have the clear lead of responsibility with this operation,” he said.
Blair, said at the same news conference: “We hope that our hostages are safe and alive, including Mr. Sobero as well as the Burnhams. That is the American concern.”