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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.