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April 28, 2002
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Given $300,000, Abductors Refuse to Free Two Americans

by Raymond Bonner, New York Times

MANILA, April 26 — The band of Muslim extremists that is holding two Americans hostage in the southern Philippines has refused to hand them over, though a ransom of nearly $300,000 has been paid, and the group is now demanding $200,000 more, according to Philippine and American officials.

The ransom money was raised and paid last month by the families of the hostages, Martin and Gracia Burnham, with the acquiescence of the Bush administration, officials in Washington said.

While declining to discuss the details of the arrangements, Mr. Burnham's mother, Oreta Burnham, said in an interview today by telephone from her home in Kansas that the family had expected that Abu Sayyaf, the group that kidnapped the Burnhams last May, would hand over her son and his wife around Easter, which was on March 31.

It is not clear what went wrong. The Philippine police, who arranged for the transfer of the money to Abu Sayyaf, did not inform the Philippine military, fearing that the military would siphon off some of the ransom money, as has happened in the past, officials said. Philippine soldiers and American Special Forces are conducting exercises on the island of Basilan, where the Burnhams were last known to be held. The military activity there may have impeded the release of the Burnhams, Philippine officials said.

Lack of cooperation between Philippine security agencies, and even between branches of the armed forces, has hampered previous hostage-rescue efforts and become a serious impediment to the Bush administration's war on terrorism here.

The payment of $300,000 to Abu Sayyaf for the Burnhams was first reported by The Washington Times this month. The Bush administration has declined to comment, beyond a statement saying American policy is to deny kidnappers the benefits of any ransom.

The Philippine government has said its policy is not to pay ransom to kidnappers. It is not clear who in the Manila government authorized the police to engage in the negotiations that led to the handing over of $300,000, but one individual involved said the police officials were risking their jobs in doing what they did.

This week, a known leader of Abu Sayyaf made contact with the Philippine government through an intermediary, saying the Burnhams would be released for 11 million Philippine pesos, roughly $200,000.

A wealthy private individual in the Philippines has been trying to raise the additional money, but he has been told by the Philippine government to refrain, individuals with knowledge of the negotiations said.

The joint American-Philippine military exercise on Basilan island has run into problems and fallen behind schedule. For several weeks, Basilan has been under 24-hour surveillance by the United States' most sophisticated spy planes, including some operated by the C.I.A., American and Philippine officials said this week. Yet no one can say for certain if the Burnhams are still being held on the island.

A senior Philippine official with access to the intelligence gathered by Americans and Filipinos said in an interview that he was almost certain that the Burnhams had been moved to another island. But in a public statement, a senior Philippine commander said the military was still operating on the assumption that the Burnhams were on Basilan. In addition to the Burnhams, Abu Sayyaf is also holding a Philippine nurse, Eldiborah Yap.

A Philippine military officer said aerial intelligence was of limited use. The jungle on Basilan is so dense in places that even the spy planes cannot penetrate it, he said.

"You're looking for an invisible army, one that evaporates and blends in with the population," he added. Even if people are spotted from the air, it is difficult to know if they are guerrillas or the island's resident farmers.

American and some Philippine military officers argue that patrols by small units of highly trained soldiers are needed to locate and rescue the Burnhams.

American military advisers are working with the Philippine military primarily at the battalion level. Under the rules of the exercise laid down by Manila, they may not go on patrols with a platoon or squad. American and Philippine officials are discussing a change in the restrictions, officials here said.

As a result of the difficulties in the exercise, three phases that were initially planned have been redefined. The third and final phase, the departure of the American forces, was originally scheduled to begin in mid-May.

But the second phase has not yet been authorized by the Pentagon, American military spokesmen here said. While it is formally described as a training phase, American and Philippine officials say it will probably include a combat operation by Philippine troops with some form of American support to rescue the Burnhams.

Frustration over the failure to secure the release the Burnhams comes in a week when Philippine officials have had to deal with new terrorism. On Sunday, homemade bombs exploded in the southern town of General Santos, on the island of Mindanao, killing 15 people, most of them shoppers at the Fit Mart Shopping Center.

Five people have been arrested, but Philippine officials gave varying accounts of who was behind the attacks, ranging from Abu Sayyaf to the Communist New People's Army, a decades-old guerrilla group.

A few days before the blasts, Philippine intelligence officials alerted the authorities in Mindanao that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is a major political force on the island, was preparing terrorist acts, including possibly a bomb at the Fit Mart, a senior Philippine official said. It is not clear what action, if any, was taken to arrest the plotters, who were identified in the intelligence officials' report.

American officials said that they did not believe that the bombings were linked to Al Qaeda, but that they were most probably the work of local criminals seeking to extort money from businesses.

A person claiming to represent Abu Sayyaf has called radio stations saying the group was responsible. But Philippine and American officials have said they do not believe his claims.

At times, American and Philippine officials have linked Abu Sayyaf to Al Qaeda, but privately officials say those links are tenuous.

It is a basically a group of "thugs who kidnap for ransom," an American diplomat said.






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