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Villagers Flee as Assault on Philippine Rebels Continues

September 26, 2000|From Associated Press

JOLO, Philippines — More than 36,000 villagers have fled their homes to escape a military assault on Muslim rebels holding 17 hostages on a southern Philippine island, officials said Monday.

Military officials said troops were still searching for the hostages, who were taken deep into the jungles of Jolo island by the separatist Abu Sayyaf rebels after the assault began Sept. 16. Officials gave no indication of when the offensive would end.

Unconfirmed reports continued to grow of civilian casualties and heavy damage to villages from the attack, which involved 4,000 troops. But the military insisted that only two civilians had been killed and four injured.

Independent verification was not possible because the military has blocked access to many areas of Jolo island and has tried to prevent journalists from traveling there.

For the first time Monday, the military escorted a group of 37 journalists for a brief, tightly controlled tour of Jolo, which is the island's capital, and an evacuation center, and then took them back to Zamboanga, on nearby Mindanao island.

Brig. Gen. Narciso Abaya, the commanding officer who initially predicted that the assault would be over in six days, said the military is no longer estimating how long it will take to save the hostages.

"Before you can rescue them, you have to find them," he said. "This is a very difficult mission. [The rebels] just keep on running. They don't fight us."

Abaya acknowledged that the military still has little information about the location of three Malaysians kidnapped Sept. 10 from a Malaysian resort and brought to Jolo island by boat.

The Abu Sayyaf rebels also are holding an American and 13 Philippine citizens.

Local officials have said that troops were nearing the rebel faction holding American Jeffrey Schilling in eastern Jolo island, but Abaya refused to comment. Schilling, of Oakland, was abducted Aug. 28 when he visited a rebel camp with his Philippine wife, who is related to a rebel leader.

Abaya said that some soldiers were pursuing the rebels on another island, but he refused to elaborate. There have been unconfirmed reports that some Abu Sayyaf rebels were able to escape to nearby Basilan island.

Most of the 36,313 evacuees were staying with relatives or friends, and less than one-third were in overcrowded evacuation centers, military officials said.

Cannons in the village of Pasil bombarded Mt. Tumantangis, where rebel leader Ghalib Andang, who calls himself Commander Robot, is reported to have fled with his followers, Col. Romeo Tolentino said.

Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado said that two Abu Sayyaf rebels were killed in a clash Monday, bringing the number of guerrillas believed dead in the assault to 105. The military said that one government soldier had been killed and six others wounded.

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