ISABELA, Philippines, AFP
Philippines military chief of staff Diomedio Villanueva on Wednesday vowed to crush the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group and rescue all 21 hostages by November.
“We expect it to end by November considering the tactical operation and the variables,” General Villanueva told reporters during a visit to the southern island of Basilan, where the two American and 19 Filipino hostages are being held.
“We have dismantled their mass base,” he said, citing the arrest of more than 100 suspected Abu Sayyaf supporters over the past month.
Because of this, “the Abu Sayyaf is starting to react with violent actions.”
The Abu Sayyaf, notorious for attacks on Christians and foreigners in the south, launched their latest kidnapping spree on May 27, snatching three Americans and 17 Filipinos from a luxury resort and hiding them in the jungles of Basilan.
They have since freed some of their Filipino captives, reportedly for hefty ransom payments, but seized more Filipino hostages. Last week they abducted 34 residents and beheaded 10 men. The rest were later let go.
The rebels claim to have executed one of their American hostages, Californian Guillermo Sobero. The military presumes Sobero is dead, although his remains have not been found.
Asked why it was taking the military so long to end the crisis, Villanueva said: “We are sticking to reality. We are trying to systemize the mode of operation.”
Opposition Senator Rodolfo Biazon, a former military chief, criticized the military’s failure to crush the Abu Sayyaf.
In a statement he wondered whether a failure of military intelligence had led to last week’s abductions and beheadings, and whether there was collusion between the Abu Sayyaf and the military.
Biazon said that in a visit to Basilan last weekend, residents “confided their feelings of helplessness and hopelessness to him” over the government’s failure to resolve the Abu Sayyaf problem.
In the town of Lamitan, residents still traumatized by the attack, buried three of the 10 Christians beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf in their weekend raid.
Over a hundred relatives and friends of the deceased wept hysterically during the Catholic mass as the three coffins — one wrapped in plastic to hide the smell of the decomposing body, were prepared for burial.
From the church, newly-renovated after an Abu Sayyaf attack in June, the mourners, flanked by Garand rifle-toting militiamen, brought the bodies to the cemetery where they were laid to rest.
Virginia Natalaray, whose son Elmer was one of those buried, collapsed in anguish, screaming, “my son was innocent. Why did they do this to him?”