Crisis Situation

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An ongoing hostage drama in the Philippines is tarnishing President Estrada's image and undermining confidence in his administration

Welcome to Jolo reads the white painted sign over the wharf. But there is scant welcome for anyone on the island these days. On the quayside, locals are crowding onto boats to get out. Jolo has become kidnap central, the most dangerous place in the Philippines, and anyone who can is leaving. They have good reason: barely half an hour's drive from the port, 21 hostages, mostly foreigners, are being held by 200 Muslim fighters from the feared Abu Sayyaf separatist group. These rebels are surrounded by 2,000 government troops. Everyone fears trouble is coming.

Just when President Joseph Estrada thought things could not get worse in his troubled presidency, things got worse. Battling domestic critics of his handling of the economy, he suddenly finds himself facing two separate hostage situations and a rash of bombings in the Muslim south--and six foreign governments desperate to get their nationals back without loss of life. Ten Malaysians, three Germans, two French, two South Africans, two Finns and a Lebanese along with a Filipina were taken to Jolo two weeks ago from the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan. Their embassies in Manila have been calling for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The ensuing events have done little to reassure them.

Last Monday, a female doctor in Jolo was allowed to visit the foreign hostages and found them in poor health with low morale. The kidnappers say we will be here for two months, said South African captive Monique Styrdom. I don't think anyone will survive this. The doctor gave them some medicines and recommended that two be hospitalized, but she was forced to leave without taking any of the hostages with her.

A day later, the rebels holding the foreign hostages fired at government troops they said were getting too close to their position. One soldier was killed, and the rebels claimed two of the hostages also died during the fighting, although the government later denied any foreigners had been killed. All efforts to open negotiations with the hostage takers were then suspended.

The following day on the island of Basilan, just 80 km northeast of Jolo, troops seeking to free 27 Filipinos held by another Abu Sayyaf faction engaged their captors in a firefight. These hostages had been taken from two schools on March 20, and included a number of children. By the end of the confrontation, four hostages were dead, 15 were rescued--some of them badly injured--and eight were still missing. The army said the operation was a success, but Estrada knows he cannot afford many more successes like that. Foreign investors are getting jittery about the violence in the south, the Manila Stock Exchange is at an 18-month low and the President, who has cultivated a reputation for being tough on crime, is now looking vulnerable.

Estrada came to power vowing to use the fertile soil and typhoon-free climate of Mindanao to make the southern island into the breadbasket of the Philippines. Since the early 1970s Mindanao has been wracked by warfare between Muslim separatists and the predominantly Catholic central government. Former President Fidel Ramos made some progress in pacifying the rebels, but under Estrada the peace talks have stalled. On Wednesday, the largest separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, used the distraction of the Abu Sayyaf kidnappings to stage its own attacks on several locations in Mindanao, leaving 35 dead. The airport in Cotabato was closed after a mortar hit the runway, and the southern fishing port of General Santos was shut down almost entirely by a series of bombings around the town. Further bombings followed on Saturday--five people were killed in a bus explosion in Surigao--just hours into a 48-hour ceasefire declared by the group. Estrada had earlier vowed to get tough on all of the Muslim rebels, promising all-out war if they did not sign a peace agreement by the end of June. But since the foreign hostages were taken on April 23, his freedom to act has been constrained.

For the time being, Estrada is pinning his hopes for the release of the foreigners on the negotiating tactics of Nur Misuari, a former Muslim rebel leader who came over to the government side as the result of a peace agreement in 1996. On Friday Misuari said he had reopened contact with Abu Sayyaf. His emissaries on Jolo had assured him all the foreigners were still alive, although two had sustained minor injuries during the firefight earlier in the week and were receiving treatment for their wounds. Misuari said he expected a list of demands, including a monetary ransom, to be handed over within days. Even though Estrada has ruled out paying ransom, Misuari says it will be called money to cover the lodging costs for the hostages, along with some funds for economic development of the island. Several foreign governments are understood to be prepared to pay to get their nationals out, and some are trying to persuade Manila to allow foreign negotiators to take part in talks with the kidnappers. We are now in the eye of the storm, says Misuari, who counsels patience in dealing with Abu Sayyaf.

Others are more eager to confront the militants head on. We are sure to pulverize them to pulp, says police superintendent Candido Casimiro, the provincial commander in Jolo. Be assured that we have enough men to do the job. Most people on Jolo appear to have turned against Abu Sayyaf, which has squandered whatever sympathy it once enjoyed for its purported goal of achieving a separate Muslim state in the south. The latest kidnapping crisis has only intensified local opposition to the group. They are like the plague, says Zeny Masong, who works for a local radio station. For years Abu Sayyaf fighters have extorted protection money from the local population to finance their operations. Families who run businesses or have relatives earning money overseas are liable to receive a letter from the rebels demanding money--with an unvoiced threat if they don't comply.

An ominous calm now shrouds the town of Jolo, and the streets are deserted long before the official 9 p.m. curfew. Some shops stay closed all day. Residents say they have seen some of the Abu Sayyaf fighters in the town, and there are fears of more kidnappings. Late last week a Malaysian journalist was forcibly taken to a jeep from outside his Jolo hotel by six men but then released.

By the end of the week, the captors had reportedly split the foreign hostages into four groups, making any attempt at a rescue even more difficult. In charge of the hostages was the notorious Commander Robot, a moustachioed, long-haired man in his 40s with much experience in kidnapping for ransom, and his sidekick, the one-armed fighter Commander Raddulan. They have threatened to behead two of the hostages if the government does not negotiate. Misuari, for one, thinks they are not bluffing: What they are doing is an act of desperation--they are suicidal.

For Estrada, the situation is equally desperate. The Philippines is already starting to fall behind the rest of Asia's economic recovery. In its latest forecast, the Asian Development Bank predicts the Philippines' GDP growth will be the lowest of all countries in the Asian region, even lagging behind such troubled economies as Indonesia, Vietnam and Burma. The multiple hostage crises and bombing attacks are the worst possible P.R. in the eyes of foreign investors. Political risk is something investors thought they could put behind them in most of South East Asia these days. Tragically, it is again becoming a fact of life in the Philippines--from Jolo to Manila.

Reported by Nelly Sindayen/Jolo