Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Muslim extremists holding an American missionary couple hostage in the southern Philippines have thrown down the gauntlet to the joint U.S.-Filipino forces hunting them, mocking them as "useless" yet warning that should they get the upper hand, the hostages will be killed.
A day after the Manila government confirmed its policy was not to pay ransom for hostages, a spokesman for the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) said in a taped radio interview due for broadcast Thursday that Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kansas, may die.
"If they want to, then they can start looking for the dead bodies," said Aldam Tilao, alias Abu Sabaya, in reference to government officials. "With the decision of the Philippine government that they don't want to negotiate with us, we are now closed for any negotiation."
Sabaya gave mixed messages about the fate of the Burnhams, who were captured more than 11 months ago and are being held together with a Filipina nurse, Deborah Yap.
On the one hand, he told Radio dxRZ, "holding the hostages is more advantageous to the group compared to the two million dollars [in ransom demanded for their freedom]."
But, he added, "If we see that we are being outfought, it's goodbye to these two."
Reacting to the death threat, Manila's national security adviser Roilo Golez told Philippine television Thursday: "We stick to our policy. The government cannot be threatened."
"The government feels that the policy [of refusing to pay ransom] is still a wise policy," he said, adding that the U.S. government held the same view.
Golez repeated an appeal for the hostages to be released.
Although the ASG has threatened to kill the hostages before, the presence of hundreds of U.S. troops in the area to train and advise Philippine forces has upped the ante.
The stated goal of the Balikatan exercise on Basilan island - the ASG's mountainous stronghold - is to help the Philippine Army destroy the group and free the hostages.
The ASG is believed to have been set up in the early 1990s with the help and funding of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's terrorist network held responsible for last September's attacks on the U.S.
Sabaya taunted the Philippine and U.S., saying they were embarrassed by the hostage crisis yet could not do anything to end it.
"The U.S. superpower can do nothing against us, so what more [can it do against] the al Qaeda network?" he said. "They have shown the uselessness of Balikatan."
A Philippine military spokesman said Sabaya was merely engaging in propaganda in a bid to raise the morale of ASG members. The army would not let up on its search and destroy operations, Lt.-Col. Jose Mabanta said.
The ASG was set up with the purpose of fighting for an independent Islamic state in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. In time it became notorious for ransom kidnappings, sometimes known locally as "commercial insurrection."
In 2000, the Libyan government paid large ransoms to the group in return for the release of European and other hostages. With the injection of funds the ASG was able to buy modern equipment and attract recruits.
Last May it struck again, capturing the Burnhams, another American - California tourist Guillermo Sobero - and 17 Filipinos from an island resort. The Burnhams had arrived at Dos Palmas just hours earlier, having gone there to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
Yap was seized from a hospital several days later. In mid-June, the gang decapitated Sobero. A number of the Filipinos were also killed, and the group has murdered other hostages in previous crises, including Catholic priests and teachers.
Last July, President Gloria Arroyo declared an intensified crackdown on the ASG, vowing to crush it finally. After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush offered to send troops to help train Filipino soldiers engaged in the drawn-out campaign to flush out the bandits.
The joint exercise began in early February and is due to run for six months.
Meanwhile, in recent days, there has been some confusion about the question of ransom.
Martin Burnham's father, Paul, was quoted last week as saying he had reached an agreement March 13 to have the three hostages released, but the bandits had reneged on the deal. An amount of $300,000 was reportedly paid through a Muslim mediator.
But Sabaya has denied that the group has received any ransom, prompting local media and military officers to speculate that there were splits between factions within the ASG, one of which may have the ransom without knowledge of the other.
For her part, Arroyo expressed sorrow that the Burnhams remained hostages, but said her government had urged the family not to negotiate with bandits who could not be trusted.
Then earlier this week, Sabaya urged Arroyo to designate a senior adviser, Norberto Gonzales, to negotiate the release of the three hostages, warning this was a "last deal" offer.
But government spokesman Silvestre Afable announced Tuesday that the government was sticking to its no-ransom, no-negotiations policy, prompting the latest threats from Sabaya.
The Burnhams' missionary organization, the Florida-based New Tribes Mission (NTM), said Wednesday it was aware of the threats to kill the hostages, and urged its supporters to continue praying, both for the couple and their family.
NTM noted that the crisis was now entering its 12th month. "The families have anticipated the release of Martin and Gracia. Raised hopes that are dashed can be devastating. The pain is clear, the difficulties obvious."
Although NTM disagreed with the decision to offer a ransom, it said it didn't want the difference of opinion to affect its relationship with the families.
E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.
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