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Gunmen hold dozens of Philippine villagers hostage

Mountain tribesmen rounded up children and adults during a morning raid, authorities say. They want the government to drop all charges against a criminal gang.

December 11, 2009|By Al Jacinto and John M. Glionna
  • Protesters hold a sit-in in front of parliament to protest the imposition of martial law in Maguindanao province, on the Philippines' volatile Mindanao island.
Protesters hold a sit-in in front of parliament to protest the imposition… (Noel Celis / AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Seoul and Zamboanga City, Philippines -- Gunmen raided a remote Philippine village before dawn Thursday and abducted at least 75 people in a restive southern province, an army spokesman said.

Within hours the assailants had freed 18 captives, 17 of them children, amid negotiations with government officials, authorities said. They freed nine others today and are demanding that murder charges be dropped

The incident was the second recent mass abduction in the Philippines. Last month, 57 people, including 30 journalists, traveling in an election convoy were captured and then massacred in the southern province of Maguindanao. The killings, believed to involve a powerful political clan, led President Gloria Arroyo Macapagal to impose martial law in the province.

Authorities say the two episodes are not related.

On Thursday, police and army troops converged on the town of Prosperidad, in the southern province of Agusan del Sur, after reports of attackers swarming the village, said Maj. Michelle Anayron of the 4th Infantry Division.

At least 15 armed tribesmen stormed the village and rounded up two forest rangers, teachers and parents in the 6 a.m. attack, authorities said.

Police said the men initially abducted 125 people, but 50 hostages escaped. The gunmen, whom authorities had reportedly chased from a nearby village the previous day, took the remaining hostages away to a forested area.

After releasing the children, the kidnappers brought the remaining hostages to the nearby village of San Martin, said Police Chief Inspector Apollo Abao, who said negotiations were continuing.

The gunmen "were asking for blankets and food and water for the hostages," he said.

The assailants, described as bandits responsible for several robberies and killings in the area, reportedly used the hostages as human shields as they made their escape.

Authorities said the abductions may have been a response to attempts to arrest the gang's leader, Ondo Perez, who has a number of arrest warrants against him and is connected to the massacre of a farming family.

Late in the day, the kidnappers demanded that the government drop all criminal charges against Perez and his group in exchange for the release of the hostages, the police and military said.

"These demands are impossible," Anayron said. "The law of the land must be followed. It is up to the government to negotiate for the release of the hostages."

In October, tribesmen also seized seven government forest rangers in Agusan del Norte province, demanding that the government return their ancestral lands and cancel all forest agreements with commercial loggers in areas inhabited by indigenous tribes, authorities said.

The hostages, employees of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, were freed in the town of Sibagat in Agusan del Sur province after the government canceled several agreements with logging firms.

Both provinces are known for illegal logging and are a stronghold of New People's Army rebels.

Last year, about 500 leaders of indigenous tribes and representatives of nongovernmental organizations and the Roman Catholic Church appealed to the Manila government to end illegal logging and destructive mining in the province.

Jacinto is a special correspondent based in Zamboanga City.

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