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Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 09:36 GMT
Army 'colluded' with Abu Sayyaf
By East Asia correspondent Orlando de Guzman
US troops have been arriving in the southern Philippines in what may be the next stage for America's war on terror.
US officials say they will help Filipino troops eliminate the Abu Sayyaf, a radical Muslim group with suspected links to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.
Why Filipino troops have not been able to defeat the Abu Sayyaf on their own has been the subject of heated debate in the Philippines.
The most prominent witness claiming the Abu Sayyaf may be colluding with the Philippines military is Father Loi Nacordo.
The Catholic priest from Basilan island is known here for his habit of packing a .45 calibre pistol, and travelling with armed guards wherever he goes.
He has good reason for such precautions. In 1994, he was kidnapped and held hostage for two months by the Abu Sayyaf. He says that during his captivity he began to suspect links between the Abu Sayyaf and the Philippine military.
He says he was brazenly dragged around by his kidnappers right next to army camps on Basilan island.
"Many times, we would walk very near the military camps - about 50 or 100 metres away, and we were never bothered by the army, even though my captors and I could actually see them.
It would have been impossible for the army not to spot us, as we were moving in a large group - there were about 20 of us."
Father Nacorda says he sometimes overheard Abu Sayyaf commanders discussing arms shipments from government sources.
He says ammunition boxes and weapons used by the group were clearly marked with the initials of the Philippine armed forces.
The extremist group's top commanders were holed up with their hostages inside a church compound.
Government troops had surrounded them, and there was no way out, according to press reports at the time.
Even President Gloria Arroyo and top military commanders proclaimed the end of the Abu Sayyaf live on national television.
But on the ground in Basilan, the mood was different.
Troops had not surrounded the rebels.
The company of 70 elite scout ranger soldiers were suffering heavy causalities, says a ranger who was there during the fighting.
"We were completely taken by surprise. No one told us that the Abu Sayyaf was there, even though everyone else, including the local police and our driver, knew that the Abu Sayyaf had entered the town the night before.
"We would have been more prepared if we were told what we were up against."
The soldier, unnamed for his own protection, says they were not equipped with radios, and their ammunition ran out after a few hours.
The company of freshly trained troops sent there had never fought in combat before. Reinforcement were not brought in until 17 hours after three of the rangers were killed.
The Abu Sayyaf then escaped out of the back of the church, which was left unguarded.
The government's failure to capture the leadership of the Abu Sayyaf in Lamitan was a huge embarrassment.
The military said it was simply outgunned. But residents of Basilan island immediately suspected that some military commanders let the Abu Sayyaf go, in exchange for a cut of a ransom payment allegedly delivered during the siege in the church compound.
Furious residents then held noisy demonstrations.
"If it is proven that some military officers are in cahoots with the Abu Sayyaf, they should be brought to the proper forum - the court," said one.
The allegations that the Philippines military was in cahoots with the Abu Sayyaf were serious enough to warrant a congressional investigation.
Neric Acosta is a congressman who is presiding over the investigation into what happened in Lamitan.
"Why did that siege end up the way it did, which is that the Abu Sayyaf escaped, and whether the escape was deliberate, whether there was some collusion that allowed for that escape?," said Mr Acosta.
He still accuses the Philippines military of colluding with the extremist Muslim militants, not just once, but many times.
'Nothing to hide'
The army vigorously denies Father Nacorda's allegations. General Edilberto Adan, the Philippines army's spokesman, says his troops have nothing to hide.
"It is not true that we have not been transparent," General Adan says. "We have been overtransparent. No less than the chief of staff, the soldiers out there in Basilan, the company commanders, were called in the senate, and house hearings.
"We gave our side. Witnesses were called. But to this day, no one can prove that any of the generals accused by Father Nacorda, connived with the enemy."
The Lamitan incident was just a blunder, says General Adan - a mistake caused by poor logistics and lack of proper military hardware. These problems will go away once American troops provide new equipment and training.
He dismissed Father Nacorda's testimony as not credible, coming from a man he says has been traumatised by his hostage experience.
"These people have long been oppressed by the Abu Sayyaf, they have long been terrorised. Any armed group that moves there, they panic," General Adan says.
"And so when the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] failed to cordon, and destroy the Abu Sayyaf right there in Lamitan, they out of frustration cast the blame on the AFP. We said, 'look, we admitted we committed mistakes, mainly because of this, but not because we don't want to fight the Abu Sayyaf, not because we were paid not to fight the Abu Sayyaf'."
But Congressman Neric Acosta, who is investigating the matter, says ransom money did change hands in Lamitan that day, and the Abu Sayaf was able to walk out of the church compound under highly suspicious circumstances.
Mr Acosta says there are dozens of credible witnesses with compelling testimony.
"There just doesn't seem for me, compelling evidence, that there was absolutely no collusion. There is more reason for me to believe, that there was indeed collusion," Mr Acosta says.
The final results of the congressional investigation into the Lamitan siege have yet to be released.
Congressman Acosta fears that with American troops now arriving, there will be pressure to water down the report's findings.
Mr Acosta says that what the Philippines army needs in fighting the Abu Sayaf is not more weapons from the United States, but less corruption within the military's own ranks.
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