By TERRY MCCARTHY ManilaEaster Sunday was just another day in paradise for James and Mary Murphy--until the guys with the AK-47s and rocket launchers turned up. After a day of diving and lounging on the beach, the Murphys and the other tourists on Sipadan Island off the east coast of Malaysia were having dinner when six armed men burst in and ordered them onto boats waiting offshore. The Murphys, from Rochester, New York, had come to the exclusive $250-a-night resort of Sipadan for its world-renowned corals, turtles, sharks and parrotfish. Instead they found themselves confronted by men pointing guns at them and shouting orders. The men, it turned out, were Muslim separatists from the Philippines' shadowy Abu Sayyaf terrorist organization.
With a tradition of taking foreign hostages--and killing civilians--the Abu Sayyaf are the most feared rebel group in the predominantly Catholic Philippines. The organization maintains links with international terrorist leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ramzi Yousef, the man convicted of plotting the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City.
Although James Murphy initially didn't know who the armed men were, he was worried. They showed little interest in the tourists' valuables, he noted, but wanted them to board their boat. They had cut the phone lines to the island, so nobody could call for help. With the kidnappers shouting Move it, goddamn, move it! to the Americans and 10 other foreign tourists, Murphy took a big chance. He told the armed men that his wife could not swim and was unable to make it to the boat. The pirates turned away long enough for the Murphys to run into the undergrowth of the tropical island, where they hid for the rest of the night.
The other travelers were not so lucky. Three Germans, two French, two South Africans, two Finns and a Lebanese were herded onto the waiting boats together with nine Malaysians and two Filipino workers from the resort. Under cover of darkness they were taken to Jolo island in the southern Philippines, about an hour away by sea. For several days their fate was a mystery, until Philippine Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado finally confirmed what many had suspected all along: the hostages were being held by the local Abu Sayyaf leader on Jolo island, Galib Andang, who goes by the alias Commander Robot. Andang was behind several previous assaults, including the 1998 kidnapping of three Hong Kong citizens in the Sulu islands.
Efforts to negotiate the release of the latest hostages were continuing through the weekend with the appointment of former Muslim rebel leader Nur Misuari as Manila's negotiator. Misuari traveled to Jolo to open communications with the kidnappers. Once head of the Moro National Liberation Front, an Islamic separatist group, Misuari went over to the government after peace talks in 1996. He still commands respect among Muslims in the southern Philippines. The kidnappers reportedly told Misuari they want money and restoration of fishing rights in exchange for the hostages. President Joseph Estrada told TIME, however, that he isn't prepared to meet the demands. No way, you cannot keep paying, Estrada said. That's why we have so much kidnapping in the Philippines. The President shows every sign of sticking to the hard line he has adopted since the start of the incident. Abu in Tagalog means 'ash,' says Estrada, and that is what we are going to turn them into.
Far away from the action, ensconced in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, the Murphys are now counting their blessings. We're even luckier than we first thought, James told reporters soon after the couple's escape. Talk about a sense of relief. We would have been the only American hostages; that would have been really scary.
Though they didn't realize it at first, the tourists have been plunged into a complicated and brutal kidnap drama that reaches across the Sulu islands, an area long known for piracy, smuggling and general lawlessness. A month earlier, Abu Sayyaf fighters had seized 50 people from schools on Basilan island, some 80 km northeast of Jolo. Their demand was bizarre: that Manila must persuade American President Bill Clinton to release Yousef, the World Trade Center bomber currently serving a 240-year sentence in the U.S. Estrada rejected the demand out of hand. In response, the rebels announced several days before Easter that they had beheaded two of their hostages. Estrada ordered his military to go in hard:on April 22, the government launched an air and ground assault on the Abu Sayyaf camp to free the remaining captives. A day later, the latest batch of hostages were grabbed in Sipadan, upping the stakes for Manila once again.
Abu Sayyaf, which in Arabic means Bearer of the Sword, was set up in 1991 by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, a veteran of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. With some 600 fighters, Abu Sayyaf says it is struggling for an independent Muslim state in the southern Philippines. But most of its actions have amounted to little more than localized terrorism and kidnapping for ransom. The group is known to receive money and support from the Middle East, although claims that Osama bin Laden visited the region in the early 1990s have never been confirmed. Abu Sayyaf has a record of tossing explosives into buses and shopping centers, and in 1993 it killed seven worshipers by rolling grenades down the aisle of the Catholic cathedral in Davao. In 1995 Abu Sayyaf fighters invaded the Christian village of Ipil on Mindanao Island, walking down the main street and shooting anything that moved. When they left, 53 people were dead. Over the years they have kidnapped Spanish nuns, Hong Kong fishery workers, a U.S. bible translator and a Taiwanese grandmother.
We may be small in number, but we have plenty fighting with us--the angels and the hand of Allah, Abu Sayyaf's current leader, Khadaffy Janjalani, told Time in an interview via two-way radio last week. Khadaffy, who took over the group after his brother was killed by government forces in 1998, was speaking from the rebel camp in Basilan as it was being attacked by the Philippine military. We dream of an entire Islamic world, and we will achieve it, the rebel leader says. Allah is with us:just now three bombs turned out to be duds, they did not explode.
As the hostage drama drags on, Estrada is feeling the pressure. Our priority is the safety of the hostages, he told TIME. But we're going to finish them off this time. The Philippine military's assault on the Abu Sayyaf base on Basilan has been going slowly, however, as troops cope with dense jungle, land mines and an enemy that knows the terrain better. According to one officer, government soldiers do not dare to move at night for fear of being cut down by friendly fire.
Abu Sayyaf's political objectives may seem unreal:600 rebels are not going to overturn a country of 73 million people anytime soon, let alone convert the entire world to Islam. But this only makes dealing with them more hazardous. How do you negotiate with guys like that? asks one of Estrada's top aides. They're crazy. Solving that problem, however, could mean the difference between life and death for several dozen hostages.
With reporting by Ken Stier/Kuala Lumpur and Nelly Sindayen/Basilan