American tourists among hostages taken from Philippine resort
MANILA, Philippines (AP) – The Philippine military took to the air and sea in search of two dozen gunmen who raided an upscale resort wearing ski masks Sunday and then fled by boat with about 20 hostages, including three American tourists.
As darkness fell, the airplanes were recalled and fears were growing of a repeat of the prolonged hostage crisis last year that received worldwide attention and battered the Philippines’ international image.
After storming the Dos Palmas Island Resort at dawn, the kidnappers headed south, either toward islands that are home to Muslim extremists who seized foreigners 13 months ago or toward Malaysia, which offered the Philippines its cooperation in the matter.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo dispatched her military chief of staff, Diomedio Villanueva, to direct the search-and-rescue effort from Palawan Island, a short boat ride from the resort, and ships and planes fanned out over the Mindanao Sea.
Villanueva said officials believed they knew who the kidnappers were, but he would not identify them.
Speculation has focused on Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic rebel group that raided a Malaysian tourist resort and took 10 foreign tourists hostage on April 23, 2000. All those hostages have since been freed, some reportedly for large ransoms paid by Libya.
Arroyo ordered ”all-out war” on Abu Sayyaf in early April, but military officials said the separatist organization has regrouped in the last two weeks. Still, Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon tried to downplay suggestions that the Abu Sayyaf was responsible for Sunday’s raid.
There were concerns for the hostages’ safety if a showdown developed, said Arroyo’s spokesman, Rigoberto Tiglao. He vowed there would be no negotiations or ransom.
The kidnappings took place at the Dos Palmas resort at Honda Bay in Palawan province, about 375 miles southwest of Manila.
Military officials said two dozen men in ski masks took guests and resort staffers at gunpoint in a raid that lasted about 15 minutes. The guests were believed to include 13 Chinese Filipinos, three Americans and at least one child.
Two of the Americans were identified as Martin and Gracia Burnham, missionaries from Wichita, Kan., who have lived in the Philippines since 1986 and have been working for the New Tribes Mission of Sanford, Fla., said Tim Grossman, who was at the organization’s Manila office Sunday.
The couple flew to the resort on Saturday for their 18th wedding anniversary. Their three children – Jeffrey, 14, Melinda, 11, and Zachary, 10 – are also in the Philippines.
Martin Burnham’s mother said from Rose Hill, Kan., that she does not believe a ransom should be paid because that could encourage more kidnappings.
”You could go to Wichita or New York and get mugged, or something like that. We don’t feel at all in danger, and our children feel the same way,” Oreta Burnham said.
The other American was identified as Guillermo Sobero, of Corona, Calif., who was to mark his 40th birthday on Tuesday.
In Corona, a woman who identified herself as his wife, Fanny Sobero, said she learned about the kidnappings from a reporter’s phone call. The couple is in the midst of a divorce.
Fanny Sobero said she last saw her husband Wednesday and that he told her he was going to Lake Havasu, Ariz., to celebrate his birthday with his brother and sister. She said her husband is an avid diver who has visited Manila several times and has a girlfriend there.
The State Department on Sunday cautioned Americans that travel in certain areas of the Philippines was unsafe. Violence during recent political demonstrations, kidnappings of foreigners and bombing incidents call for Americans to exert extreme caution throughout the country, the department said.
Before Sunday, the last American to be taken hostage in the Philippines was Jeffrey Schilling of Oakland, Calif. Schilling was held by Abu Sayyaf for eight months until government troops rescued him last month.
Mindanao’s high seas have long been plagued by Muslim separatists, pirates and other outlaws.
Capt. Djo Jalandoni, with the military’s western command, said the abductors might be headed to Jolo Island, where Abu Sayyaf is based. A guard at Dos Palmas, Rudy Gorgonia, said the gunmen spoke Tausug, a dialect of southern Jolo.
A staffer at the 50-acre island resort, contacted by telephone, said police and the military have secured Dos Palmas. Opened in 1998, it has about 50 hotel rooms and seaside cottages – some built on stilts in a bay.
A military spokesman, Edilberto Adan, said Sunday’s kidnappings appear to be unconnected to two attacks last week.
On Thursday, armed men abducted a ferry carrying 42 people, later releasing the passengers but keeping four sailors. Police said the abductors were likely members of Abu Sayyaf, which says it is fighting for a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines. On Tuesday, dozens of gunmen tried to storm a tourist resort, killing two workers.
Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes offered a reward of $20,000 for information leading to the release of the hostages in Sunday’s raid.
Martin Burnham, 41, has spent most of his life in the Philippines, Grossman said, and the couple had been living in Nueva Vizcaya province in the northern part of the country.
Burnham’s parents are also missionaries to the Philippines and have been on leave in Rose Hill for the past three months. They have two other grown children working as missionaries there and another doing the same in New Guinea.
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