Island braces for army assault as deadline on hostages nears

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 12:00am

On the eve of a military-imposed deadline for the release of four hostages held by a Muslim gang, Philippine government officials said there was little hope of averting an army offensive.

Hasser Hayudini, mayor of Patikul on the southern island of Jolo, yesterday was forced to abort negotiations with the mother of kidnap-gang leader Muin Sahiron after she went missing.

After trekking for several hours through thick forest in Patikul, Mr Hayudini's group found Mrs Sahiron's hut abandoned.

Officials believe she fled after a local radio station aired calls from Ismi Patrimonio, a relative of one of the kidnap victims, urging Patikul residents to snatch the families of the kidnappers so they could be swapped with the four female hostages.

Mr Hayudini had planned to tell Muin Sahiron's mother that she and the families of the other 14 gang members would be driven out of Jolo unless the hostages were released unharmed after a five-day deadline, which is set to lapse tonight.

'We're hoping [Mr Hayudini] would succeed, but we are poised to conduct operations against these kidnappers,' Defence Secretary Angelo Reyes said.

He said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had ordered the military to 'go get the kidnappers' once talks failed.

About 4,000 soldiers, including a US-trained Light Reaction Company, have been deployed to Jolo.

The spokeswoman for the United States military in Mindanao, Major Cynthia Terramae, confirmed that an American spy plane was combing the mountains and forests of Jolo in search of the kidnap gang.

The bandits, believed to be operating independently of the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremists, abducted six members of a Christian group while they were selling cosmetics in Patikul on August 20. They beheaded two of the six Jehovah's Witness evangelists, cutting off the tongue of one of the victims.

Muin Sahiron is a nephew of Abu Sayyaf commander Radulan Sahiron, who is on Washington's most-wanted list of terrorists.

Yesterday, Junie Mantolo, elder brother of one of the slain victims and whose wife and sister are among the hostages, asked the military to extend the five-day deadline.

'We have a negotiator who is now with the kidnappers and was assured they would free the hostages,' he said.

Mr Mantolo denied reports that the kidnappers had asked for a six-million peso (HK$915,000) ransom but said they had demanded a troop pullout.

But many believe the military is unlikely to give in. 'Our troops are combing the jungle inch by inch. The kidnappers are on the run,' said Brigadier General Romeo Tolentino, leader of the Jolo operations.