Restrictions eased on news coverage in hostage crisis

The Associated Press
Saturday September 30, 2000

JOLO, Philippines – The Philippine military eased some restrictions Friday on news coverage of its assault on Muslim rebels holding 17 hostages on a southern island, but continued to limit communications. 

Journalists are now allowed to travel to Jolo island but will only have access to certain areas and will need military supervision, officials said. 

“We’re going to balance between giving access and preventing the rebels from replenishing their inventory of hostages,” Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado said. 

At least 16 journalists have been seized in recent months by the Abu Sayyaf rebels. All have either been released or have escaped. 

The military imposed a wide range of restrictions when 5,000 troops launched their assault on the rebels Sept. 16, largely cutting Jolo island off from the rest of the world. Relief officials said Friday that medicines and food were running out because of limited transportation. 

Civilian ferries resumed operation Friday but continued to be under military supervision to prevent the guerrillas’ escape, officials said. Cellular phone links remained cut to limit communications among the rebels. 

Until Friday’s relaxation, the military had prevented most journalists from entering Jolo. A small group of journalists there, including an AP reporter and photographer, were restricted in where they could travel. 

The military says it still remains unsure of the exact location of the hostages — an American, three Malaysians and 13 Filipinos. 

More than 80,000 villagers have fled their homes to escape the fighting since the assault began two weeks ago. 

At least 111 Abu Sayyaf rebels are believed to have been killed in 36 clashes in which four government soldiers have died, the military says. 

Gen. Narciso Abaya, commander of the assault, acknowledged Friday that the military had erred in believing the rebels would fight back instead of fleeing through Jolo’s jungles. 

“We were anticipating that they would resist initially, but they never did,” he said. 

“We believe we are progressively closing in on the Abu Sayyaf,” he added. “It may take some time because it’s very hard to engage an enemy that keeps on running.” 

Sympathetic villagers on the predominantly Muslim island have also helped the Abu Sayyaf flee, Abaya said. 

He said the military believes all the hostages are still on Jolo, including American Jeffrey Schilling. 

Schilling was seen on Jolo on Tuesday, a day after he called the U.S. Embassy and said he had been taken by speedboat to another island, Abaya said. 

Schilling, from Oakland, California, also told the embassy that the rebels were demanding $10 million for his release, Philippine officials said. 

Asked whether there was a chance that the rebels had escaped with Schilling, Abaya replied: “It’s a very long coastline. There is a possibility.”