Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Philippines in Dogfight with Wily, Cash-Rich Rebels ; Thursday, Government Troops Widened Their Search for Muslim Guerrillas on a Second Philippine Island

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Philippines in Dogfight with Wily, Cash-Rich Rebels ; Thursday, Government Troops Widened Their Search for Muslim Guerrillas on a Second Philippine Island

Article excerpt

It's early morning when the planes take off on their first bombing mission of the day. A pair of US-made OV-10 Broncos, each armed with rockets and a 250-pound bomb, head out across an azure sea toward the jungle-clad slopes of Jolo Island, less than a hundred miles to the southwest.

Nearly two weeks after the raids began, the roar of the jets leaving Zamboanga is almost the only visible evidence of President Joseph Estrada's faltering offensive against the Abu Sayyaf rebels, remnants of a former Muslim separatist group.

Some 5,000 soldiers, marines, and police have been deployed to scour the rugged, volcanic peaks that dominate Jolo's mountainous interior. But the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas - thought to number several hundred - are masters of evasion. Instead of confronting the troops, they have split into several groups, making it easier for them and the 17 hostages they still hold to melt away into the forest. The gunmen know every inch of the terrain, including caves and other hideouts.

According to the military commander in Jolo, Gen. Narciso Abaya, his mission "is like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack."

The authorities have pointedly refused to put a figure on the cost of the Jolo mission, but analysts say it's a sum the Philippine economy can barely afford, certainly not in the long term.

Judging by the accounts of local aid workers, the bombs and shells have caused far more harm to civilians than to the Abu Sayyaf. Amid the continuing bombardment, some 37,000 people have fled their homes to shelter in overcrowded evacuation centers in Jolo town.

The Red Cross and other agencies - which are denied access to some areas - say the effects of the military operation on civilians have been disastrous.

Worst hit are a group of villages clustered to the northeast and south of Jolo town, where the Abu Sayyaf had their main strongholds.

According to local residents, even as the guerrillas made good their escape, the shell-and-mortar fire destroyed hundreds of homes, and killed and injured dozens of people. On Sept. 18, Amnesty International called for an immediate halt to what it termed "the indiscriminate bombing of the civilian population." The armed forces command says only two civilians have died and four others have been injured since the offensive began.

Either way, the truth is hard to come by. A naval blockade surrounds the island, and the military has barred journalists from traveling there. Filipino reporters who were taken on a brief and tightly controlled visit to Jolo on Monday were not allowed to leave the main town. The news blackout has worried many, including church leaders and legislators who initially supported the decision to use force against the Abu Sayyaf.

One senior figure in the House of Representatives, Sergio Apostol, said the blackout "sends the wrong signals to the public, and is being used by the Abu Sayyaf for their own propaganda."

More tellingly, the military's clumsiness has further alienated a largely Muslim local population already sympathetic to the Abu Sayyaf. That in turn has made the vital task of gleaning intelligence to help locate the fleeing guerrillas almost impossible. "You should not endanger the lives of people who would help you,"says retired General Delfin Castro, who led an offensive against Muslim rebels in Jolo in the 1970s.

According to Gen. Castro, unless such assistance is forthcoming, the operation to rescue the hostages and crush the Abu Sayyaf could take several months - far longer than the one-week timetable initially stipulated by President Estrada. …

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