Rescued Missionary Widow Heads Home; Philippine Media Criticize Military

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Rescued U.S. hostage Gracia Burnham flew out of the Philippines Monday, as commentators there criticized the military encounter that ended with the deaths of her husband and a third hostage.

Gracia was wounded in the firefight between her captors, the Abu Sayyaf Group, and Philippine troops. Her 42-year-old husband Martin was killed, as was Filipina nurse Ediborah (Deborah) Yap. All three had been held by the Muslim group for more than a year.

In a statement released at the airport before leaving for Kansas via Japan, the Christian missionary urged the government to continue its efforts to defeat the terrorists.

"During our ordeal, we were repeatedly lied to by the Abu Sayyaf and they are not men of honor," she said, adding that they should be treated as "common criminals" and brought to justice.

She offered no criticism of the troops involved in the bloody shootout. On the contrary, she thanked those "who risked and even gave their lives in order to rescue us."

By contrast, Philippine commentators have torn the government to shreds over an operation variously described as "botched," "bungled" and a "total flop."

Much of what actually happened remains speculative. President Gloria Arroyo said that, as the operation was not yet over, aspects remained "classified" until the military decided what could eventually be revealed.

Adding to the confusion are contradictory statements from military officers and spokesman. Some claim the operation was carefully pre-planned; others say it was a chance encounter.

An Army colonel was quoted as saying that Martin Burnham was executed by the gunmen, but Gracia's sister said she learned that her brother-in-law was shot in the crossfire as he partially shielded his wife inside a tent.

The shootout took place not on the ASG island stronghold of Basilan, but on the nearby Zamboanga peninsula.

Since January, Basilan has been base of U.S. forces who are advising and training Filipino troops in the effort to hunt down the ASG, a group that has links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, according to counter-terrorism specialists.

Under the terms of the joint exercise, the Americans were not permitted to participate in combat operations. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters in Europe that the Pentagon had no prior knowledge of the operation, and no U.S. troops had been involved.

Although four low-level ASG gunmen were killed in the skirmish, Philippine media commentators noted that leader Aldam Tilao (aka Abu Sabaya) had managed to escape during the assault.

Abu Sabaya recently taunted the U.S., threatening to kill the Burnhams. He and four other leaders are the subject of a $5 million U.S. reward offer.

"How did that Abu Sayyaf abomination, Abu Sabaya, manage to escape?" wrote Teodoro Benigno in the Philippine Star.

"Are these the elite Philippine Scout Rangers the Americans trained for many months ...? We had thought that with all the training and the ultra-sophisticated weapons brought over by the Americans, the whole thing would be a walk in the park."

Recalling that the ASG had been whittled down over the past year to less than 100 fighters, Benigno said the group should have been wiped out long ago, "but for the blunders of our military leadership."

The Today daily in an editorial pondered why the Philippine troops, having "stumbled" across the gang with its hostages, hadn't called in the entire Army rather than initiate a firefight.

In his remarks in Europe, Rumsfeld declined to criticize the decision to attempt the rescue. Noting that the Burnhams' were believed to be in poor after a long period in captivity, he said it was "understandable" that an attempt had been made to save them.

And in Manila, U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone challenged the view that the operation had been bungled, pointing out that it had taken place in thick jungle terrain and heavy rain.


When the joint U.S.-Philippine military exercise was first announced, Arroyo was attacked by left-wing and other critics who said it was a violation of the country's sovereignty.

Some expressed suspicion that the exercise was a pretext for a return to the Philippines of a permanent U.S. military presence, a decade after American bases were shut down when the Senate refused to renew their leases.

Those same reservations were raised again Monday by several newspaper commentators.

Ninez Cacho-Olivares opined in the Manila Tribune that it was in the interests of Washington and Manila for the ASG not to be easily defeated.

"This botched operation is now being used by both governments to extend the stay of the Americans, complete with their bases," she wrote. "That was the intent all along."

Suspicions were also raised by lawmakers, who raised concerns that the rescue operation would be used by both governments as justification to extend the U.S. presence.

President Arroyo was quoted Monday as saying that the joint exercises could continue even after the scheduled end-date next month.

She said the issue had been raised briefly during a phone conversation with President Bush on Friday, following the firefight.

Meanwhile the head of the Philippine Army's southern command, Maj.-Gen. Ernesto Carolina, predicted the "imminent destruction" of the ASG, which he said was "splintered [and] demoralized."

Gracia 'in good spirits'

Gracia Burnham on Sunday met Yap's four children in a tearful encounter a U.S. Embassy spokesman later described as "wonderful."

The nurse was reportedly earlier given the opportunity to go free, but chose to stay in order to help the Americans.

The Burnhams, who have been missionaries in the Philippines for 15 years, were among 20 hostages seized from an island resort shortly after arriving there to celebrate a wedding anniversary on May 27, 2001.

A number of the other hostages, including a third American, Guillermo Sobero, were later murdered.

Yap was captured from a hospital raided by the group several days after the initial strike.

The Burnhams' Florida-based missionary organization, New Tribes Mission, said Monday Gracia was in good spirits.

She had told family members by phone that Martin's deep faith had won him the respect of the ASG members during their year in captivity.

NTM has set up a trust fund to help Gracia and their three children.

Almost 10 years ago, NTM was caught up in another hostage crisis, when three of its missionaries were seized in Panama in January 1993 by kidnappers who took them across the border into Colombia.

Contact with their captors - who demanded a $5 million ransom - was later broken, and last September the families of Dave Mankins, Mark Rich, and Rick Tenenoff agreed with the conclusion drawn by investigators that the three had been killed in 1996.

See also:
Abu Sayyaf backgrounder: Is Bin Laden Linked to Philippines Mayhem? (May 9, 2000)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow