Sometimes, Paradise Can Be a Nightmare

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A group of Western tourists kidnapped in Malaysia may have bumped into the hard reality driving the Leonardo DiCaprio movie "The Beach" — that a pristine Third World paradise turns out to be the stamping ground of elements whose agenda definitely doesn't include showing visitors a good time. Some 10 tourists from various countries are among the 21 hostages who were forced onto two boats on the remote island of Sipadan overnight Sunday by gunmen suspected of being members of a Philippines-based Islamic separatist movement. A spokesman for the Abu Ayyaf organization, a dwindling radical Islamic group with links to superterrorist Osama bin Laden, on Tuesday first claimed responsibility for the attack, and later (sort of) withdrew the statement, saying: "I'm not saying we are the ones; I'm also not saying we're not the ones — let's give the government a puzzle." Although Philippines officials were skeptical of the claims, the group — which has been eclipsed by the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front, currently in negotiations with the government — has resorted in recent months to a spate of kidnappings in a desperate bid to maintain its relevance.

If the kidnappers are indeed members of the skittish terrorist group and not simply some of the pirates for which the region is notorious, American tourists James and Mary Murphy, of Rochester, N.Y., may be even luckier than they first thought to have escaped their captors. Those currently held captive at an undisclosed location in Philippines waters include citizens of Finland, France, Germany, Lebanon, Malaysia and South Africa. But if they had managed to hold onto the two Americans who escaped during the raid on the Sipadan resort, that might have tempted the kidnappers to aim high in their demands. Although the kidnappers have issued no demands as yet, in previous kidnappings Abu Sayyaf has made demands ranging from insisting that the government include a popular local Muslim film star on its negotiating team (a demand that was met) to a call for the release of imprisoned World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and others convicted of terrorism in the U.S. The group also announced just last week that it had beheaded two Filipino hostages from a previous kidnapping as a "birthday present" to President Joseph Estrada. As the Philippine navy searches the countless small islands and inlets of its vast archipelago for signs of the group, the hostages may be ruing their choice of vacation destination. Paradise, sometimes, comes at a shocking price.