Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsRescues

THE WORLD

Hostage Describes Cross-Fire

The Philippines: Wife of slain missionary says he and a Filipina died in the gun battle during the army's rescue effort, her relatives report.

June 09, 2002|ERIC SLATER and RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MANILA — Neither of the hostages killed during a blood-soaked rescue attempt Friday in the Philippines appeared to have been executed by their captors, according to the surviving captive, but rather died in a hail of gunfire between government troops and the Muslim extremists.

Missionary Gracia Burnham told family members in Kansas on Friday that the men holding her, husband Martin and Philippine nurse Deborah Yap didn't seem to intentionally shoot the hostages, who had been held for more than a year.

Martin Burnham and Yap were killed and Gracia was wounded in the rescue attempt by U.S.-trained Philippine commandos.

"We didn't understand from her story that there had been any executions," Teresa Burnham, Martin's sister, said in an interview in Rose Hill, Kan., after talking by phone with Gracia. "That wasn't what happened, she told us. They were caught in the cross-fire."

On Friday, some Philippine army officers maintained that the hostages were coldbloodedly shot by members of the Abu Sayyaf, the kidnappers. The colonel who led the raid called the radical Islamic captors "wild animals" who mercilessly killed the two.

In Manila on Saturday, a member of the Philippine Congress said the army should stop calling the rescue attempt a success and acknowledge that it had botched the effort. Lawmaker Liza Maza called for an investigation of the army's conduct. "The rescue operation was a disaster," she said.

Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes defended the army, noting that it was operating in dense jungle under difficult conditions. "We have to be proud of our soldiers," he said. "It is wrong to say this is a bungled operation. I congratulate the soldiers in the operation. I want to tell them that accidents do happen."

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on Saturday ordered a "search-and-destroy" mission in the jungles of the southern Philippines to find the group of rebels led by Abu Sabaya, the notorious, taunting spokesman of the Abu Sayyaf. Sabaya and about 50 Abu Sayyaf members escaped after the rescue attempt. The army deployed four battalions totaling 2,400 troops to track down the rebels.

Officials said it would be easier to fight the extremists now that they no longer have hostages to shield them. But the army will have to find them first. By Saturday night, it appeared that the rebels had split up and disappeared into the thick jungles of the southern island of Mindanao.

Arroyo warned that the rebels might try to flee to neighboring Malaysia or Indonesia and asked for help in catching them.

"This is a terrible tragedy," she said. "We will not rest until we bring those responsible for these atrocities to justice."

So far, all the army has of rebel commander Sabaya are his trademark sunglasses and his backpack. Philippine soldiers displayed the items Saturday to show how close they had been to capturing him.

Both the U.S. and Philippine governments said no American troops were on the ground during Friday's battle, which also left four rebels dead and seven soldiers wounded.

Although hostage rescue missions are among the most difficult that special operations forces perform, a rescue attempt in which two of the three hostages are killed and the third wounded might be considered a particularly grim failure.

The Philippine Scout Rangers who carried out the assault had been trained by U.S. Army Special Forces troops and benefited from American spy satellites and other U.S. intelligence sources. Before the raid, however, some U.S. Army officials had expressed doubt about the Scout Rangers' ability to carry out a difficult hostage-rescue mission.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, en route to Estonia on Saturday, cautioned against second-guessing the Filipinos. "You can be darn sure the people trying to do it cared deeply and wanted to do it and wanted it to succeed fully," he said, according to a Pentagon transcript of his remarks.

The U.S. effort to train Philippine troops in anti-terrorist techniques is scheduled to end July 31. Although some legislators have suggested that the botched rescue indicated that it is time for the U.S. to let the Philippine government pursue the Abu Sayyaf on its own, the Burnham family and lawmakers in Kansas argued that the raid demonstrates the need for more American aid. As workers in Rose Hill tied yellow ribbons around the town's trees Saturday, the Burnham family hunkered down in a house so filled with flowers it was becoming difficult to move around.

In between calls of condolence from friends and strangers alike, the relatives continued the awful business of bringing home a wounded loved one and the body of another.

U.S. officials in Okinawa, Japan, had asked for Martin Burnham's dental records. Although the precise nature of his fatal wounds is unclear, Gracia Burnham told family members that his face was easily recognizable. But relatives called their dentist anyway, who rushed to help.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|