(CNSNews.com) - The Philippine government faced two simultaneous hostage crises Wednesday, as it became apparent that 21 foreigners kidnapped from a tourist resort in neighboring Malaysia on Sunday were being held by the same Filipino Islamic group involved in another major drama.
For the past five weeks Abu Sayyaf, classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department, has been holding hostage 27 Filipino Catholics, mostly schoolchildren, refusing to release them until three Arabs jailed in the United States for terrorism are freed.
After talks broke down, the Philippines army began bombarding the group's mountain stronghold with rockets four days ago in an effort to end the standoff. The Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) claims to have already decapitated two adult hostages because of a lack of favorable government response, and warned it would do the same to five others.
Now it appears the group is also behind the capture on Easter Sunday of 21 hostages from a Malaysian beach resort about an hour away from Filipino waters. Reports from the area quote security officials as saying the 21 have been taken to Jolo, a Muslim-dominated island in the southern Philippines.
They include tourists from Germany, France, Finland, South Africa and Lebanon, as well as Malaysian workers and a Filipino. A Finnish hostage is understood to be gravely ill.
An American couple, James and Mary Murphy of Rochester, N.Y., managed to escape capture early on by swimming from the kidnappers' boat and hiding in bushes through the night until help arrived.
Bin Laden link
Abu Sayyaf ("Father of the Executioner") is one of two militant groups fighting for an independent Islamic state in the south of the mostly Roman Catholic country.
It formed in 1991 out of a split with the Moro National Liberation Front, which entered talks with the government and signed a peace deal in 1996.
The State Department says the ASG is believed to have links to other fundamentalist organizations, including the al-Qaida network of Osama bin Laden, who is wanted for allegedly masterminding 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.
Like bin Laden, the group's first leader, Abduragak Janjalani, was a veteran of the Islamic war against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Janjalani was killed during a firefight with police in 1998
The Manila Bulletin daily Wednesday quoted military officials as saying that Bin Laden had paid a secret, one-day visit to the southern Philippines last month, arriving on "an unidentified foreign submarine" on March 18 and leaving the following day on a fishing boat.
The report claimed bin Laden had brought in weapons from Indonesia and held talks with senior Islamist figures.
The ASG also has ties with Ramzi Yousef, an Arab who was convicted of organizing the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. Yousef is one of three jailed terrorists whose release the Filipino group is now demanding.
According to Yossef Bodansky, author of a biography on bin Laden, the Saudi-born terrorist chief helped finance Abu Sayyaf early on.
Bodansky also writes that Ramzi Yousef was involved with the ASG in plans - subsequently aborted - to assassinate President Clinton during a 1994 visit to Manila, and the Pope a year later.
The organization has been involved in many attacks against Christians in recent years, including the murder of 52 people in a raid on a Christian village in 1995. It finances its operations through robberies and ransom kidnappings, the State Department says.
Philippine Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado said Wednesday no ransom demands had yet been received in connection with the foreign hostages. Searches are being carried out across the extensive southern island region.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted a local senator, Robert Barbers, as expressing concern about the country's image.
"This might give credence to the report several years ago that the Philippines is the kidnap capital of Asia. This is really a cause for alarm for our government and it should do everything to arrest the perpetrators, and neutralize the criminal syndicates responsible for this kind of activities."
State Department spokesman James Rubin told a media briefing Tuesday that the U.S. issued a warning one week ago "due to threats by the Abu Sayyaf organization against American citizens and interests in the region."
On the ASG's demands for the release of Yousef and two other jailed terrorists, Rubin said: "The United States does not concede to threats or demands made by terrorists."