Suspected bandits holding 57 hostages after releasing all students in southern Philippines

By Oliver Teves, AP
Thursday, December 10, 2009

All children among Philippine hostages released

MANILA, Philippines — Suspected bandits trying to evade police serving arrest warrants abducted dozens of villagers in the southern Philippines on Thursday and were still holding 57 hostages after releasing all the schoolchildren they had seized, officials said.

The gunmen, identified as former government-armed militiamen, took some 75 people from the remote hamlet of San Martin in Agusan del Sur province and the local village school, said Senior Superintendent Nestor Fajura, regional police operations officer.

Negotiations with local officials led to the release of all 17 students being held as well as an elderly woman, he said. The students were between the ages of 7 and 16.

“We have them already,” Fajura told The Associated Press by telephone. “No more children (hostages).”

The negotiations were suspended at nightfall and will be resumed Friday morning for the release of the remaining hostages, the majority of which are women, said Josefina Bajade, the chief negotiator.

She said the gunmen “committed to me that nobody will be harmed.”

Police were pursuing the gunmen after an attempt failed Wednesday to serve arrest warrants in a nearby village for two brothers allegedly involved in the killing of members of a rival clan. As police approached the village, gunmen opened fire in attempt to scare the locals, Fajura said.

Bajade said local officials have been trying to help resolve the feud between the Perez and Tubay clans, which started when Tubay clansmen allegedly killed four members of the Perez family last year. The Perez brothers allegedly retaliated by killing six members of the Tubay clan, she said.

The Perez group appeared to be using the hostages as human shields, said provincial Vice Gov. Santiago Cane.

The volatile south of the Philippines is plagued by banditry, loosely supervised government-armed militias, and Muslim and communist insurgents.

Police Chief Superintendent Jaime Milla said the gunmen in Thursday’s abductions were former militiamen who have been dismissed and turned to banditry and extortion, targeting mining and logging companies in Agusan del Sur and nearby provinces.

Cane said he believed the gunmen were passing through nearby San Martin and took the hostages at the school to help win passage out of the area.

“In my analysis … the hostage taking was only for making them human shields,” he said. “They want the standing warrant of arrest issued against them revoked.”

The gunmen rounded up villagers, teachers and students on their way to school early Thursday and gathered them at the local village hall before marching them up a hill about two miles (three kilometers) away where they were being held while officials negotiated their release, Fajura said.

“We want to convince them to release the hostages for their own good,” he said.

The gunmen demanded murder charges against them be dropped, the leader of the rival Tubay clan be arrested, and police pull out of the area, something Fajura said they cannot do.

He said police have surrounded the area but were not taking any action against the gunmen to allow the negotiations to proceed.

“We are not yet closing in,” he said. “As long as the negotiation is continuing, no police operations will be done.”

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