Philippine tribal gunmen warn of killing hostages

Tribal gunmen in the southern Philippines warned Friday they would massacre dozens of hostages if police made a rescue bid, as hundreds of security forces surrounded their mountain lair.

An armed abductor (R) walks past a group of hostages on the outskirts of Prosperidad, a town in the province of Agusan del Sur on Mindanao island on December 11 during a visit by the media and negotiators to the area.

The two-day hostage drama was the latest unrest to hit the Philippines' volatile Mindanao region, after a political massacre last month shocked the nation and triggered martial law in one province.

"I will kill the hostages if police attempt to rescue them," the gunmen's leader Ondo Perez told an AFP reporter who accompanied a government negotiator to the remote site.

But shortly afterwards Perez released 10 of his 57 hostages, according to the negotiator, Josefina Bajade. Nine of those released were women and the other was a boy, Bajade told AFP.

Authorities identified the gunmen as members of the Manobo clan, and said they were wanted on charges of murder and other crimes.

Perez, slinging an assault rifle and clad in rubber boots, shorts and a tattered shirt, gave police one week to meet his demands, including lifting arrest warrants issued against his 15-man group.

He also demanded that authorities disarm a rival clan engaged in a bitter land feud with the Manobos.

Seventy-five people were initially seized on Thursday morning from a school and neighbouring houses in a small farming village on the outskirts of Prosperidad, the capital of Agusan del Sur province.

Bajade secured the release of 18 hostages, all but one of them school children, within eight hours of the kidnapping.

The 47 still in captivity are mainly farmers and other residents of the raided village, plus the school principal, according to local officials.

They were being kept in an abandoned hut in a clearing of a thickly forested mountain about two kilometres (1.2 miles) from their village.

The hostages were made to sleep overnight on the ground.

At least 400 police and army personnel were deployed on the mountain and preparing to assault the lair if commanders gave the green light, according to an AFP reporter on the scene.

Bajade said the Manobo tribesmen launched the raid to prevent police from serving arrest warrants against family members for the murder of four people belonging to the rival family.

The mass kidnapping was part of an explosion of violence that has been stunning even for the southern Philippines, a lawless region where Muslim and communist insurgents mix with warring clans, pirates and corrupt officials.

Islamic militants on Thursday abducted a college professor on Basilan island, which is part of the Mindanao region, a day after beheading another captive whom they kidnapped on November 10 from a logging company.

The Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, which specialises in kidnappings-for-ransom, were holding three people in total on Basilan, with the two others taken from the logging firm.

The Abu Sayyaf are a small group of militants on the US government's list of wanted extremists who have been blamed for a string of abductions in the southern Philippines, as well as the country's worst terrorist attacks.

Maguindanao province in Mindanao meanwhile remains under martial law following the massacre last month of 57 people, allegedly by the heads of a Muslim clan that had ruled the area since 2001.

Security forces pressed Friday with efforts to disarm thousands of militiamen loyal to the Ampatuan clan in Maguindanao.

The Ampatuans are accused of organising the massacre to stop a rival politician from challenging them for the post of provincial governor in elections next year.

President Gloria Arroyo had used the Ampatuans to help contain Muslim separatists, allowing them to maintain a well-armed private army that activists say has terrorised the public.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is the main Muslim rebel group in Mindanao. Their insurgency has claimed more than 150,000 lives since the late 1970s, according to the military.

Source: AFP

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