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President Tours Rebel Territory

Philippines: Leader pays respects to a slain hostage and lauds troops for rescue in a visit to underscore government control of the area.

June 12, 2002|From Associated Press

LAMITAN, Philippines — President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo saluted troops who rescued a U.S. missionary and mourned the deaths of two other hostages during a tour Tuesday through southern islands terrorized by Muslim guerrillas.

Scores of soldiers patrolled the streets, and two tanks guarded the Roman Catholic school where the Philippine leader met with military and local officials in this town on Basilan island, a base for the Abu Sayyaf rebels.

Arroyo's visit and her plans to spend the night in Lamitan, where troops have battled rebels in the streets, were designed to show that the government controls the area.

Her trip came four days after Philippine troops freed U.S. hostage Gracia Burnham, whom the rebels held for more than a year. Burnham's husband, Martin, and Philippine hostage Deborah Yap were killed.

Before flying to Basilan, Arroyo stopped at Mindanao island, where Gracia Burnham was rescued and the others died. The president saluted the elite forces involved in the mission and called on them to crush the remnants of the group.

"The Filipinos and the world are proud of you," she said. "All eyes are on you so we can win this final phase."

In Lamitan, Yap's hometown, Arroyo placed flowers on the hostage's white coffin and embraced her relatives. The president planned to raise the Philippine flag in the town today, the country's Independence Day.

Arroyo was "100% safe" in Lamitan, said Maj. Gen. Ernesto Carolina, who heads southern Philippine military forces.

No major clashes have been reported since the military launched an offensive over the weekend to wipe out the rebels on the islands of Jolo, Basilan and Mindanao. The area is in the extreme southwest of the Philippines.

Carolina said that troops were closing in on the guerrillas but that chasing them was difficult.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," Carolina said. "The only difference is that this needle is moving. It is breathing, and it shoots back."

One abandoned guerrilla with leg wounds was found Tuesday about four miles from the rescue site, said regional police director Simeon Dizon.

The Abu Sayyaf rebels, who have been linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, say they want to create a Muslim state in the southern Philippines.

Their forces in Basilan are thought to number fewer than 100, down from more than 1,200 a year ago, after a military offensive. About 140 more are scattered in Jolo and Zamboanga, Carolina said.

Arroyo also met with Air Force Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, commander of an American force training and advising Philippine troops fighting the rebels.

Wurster told Arroyo that the troops should not be disheartened by the two hostages' deaths because "in any gunfight, things can happen bad."

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