Gunmen in south Philippines kidnap 16

Gunmen linked to a criminal gang have kidnapped 16 people, most of them teachers, at a graduation ceremony in a remote southern Philippine town, police said today.

The gunmen demanded freedom for their fellow tribesmen who were jailed following an almost identical hostage-taking in the same town in 2009 by suspects wanted for murder and abductions, said regional police chief Reynaldo Rafar.

The assailants in the latest kidnapping are former government militiamen turned bandits who seized the hostages yesterday at an elementary school graduation ceremony in Prosperidad town in the remote forests of southern Agusan del Sur province in the western part of Mindanao Island, Rafar said.

Most of those kidnapped were teachers, but there were two children aged 10 and 13 in the group, according to Senior Inspector Joel Solon Mendez of the provincial police.

Rafar said the gunmen immediately demanded the release of fellow Manobo tribesmen Ondo Perez and three others who are being held at the Agusan del Sur jail on charges of kidnapping and illegal possession of firearms in connection with the December 2009 hostage-taking, in which 47 villagers were held for several days.

Police sharpshooters were deployed around the area where the hostages were held and negotiations were under way, Rafar said.

Mendez said the estimated six gunmen holding the hostages had initially given a 24-hour deadline to release their four fellow tribesmen. But he said that as of this morning, they appeared to have softened their position on the deadline and demanded that food and water be delivered to them. Government negotiators have in turn asked for the immediate release of the children.

It was not clear whether the hostages were being held in an open area or indoors, Mendez said, adding that he was awaiting a progress report.

The gunmen's leader is a nephew of Perez, the head of the detained gang, Mendez said.

The latest hostage-taking took place seven months after a daylong kidnapping crisis in Manila ended in bloodshed. After a dismissed policeman took captive a busload of Hong Kong tourists to demand his job back, the Aug. 23 ordeal ended with police and the gunman opening fire, leaving eight hostages and the assailant dead and drawing international criticism to the police operation.

"I don't think we need to say this anymore, but the safety of the hostages should be the priority," presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte said on government radio today.

She said the local crisis management committee involving the mayor and town officials "hopefully can handle this without anything untoward happening to the victims."

Police have said Perez and his men were former government militiamen who turned to banditry. They were accused of seizing the villagers in 2009 after two of Perez's relatives escaped arrest in connection with the killing of four members of a rival clan.

The 2009 hostages were freed several days later after intervention by Manobo tribal elders, and the gang leaders were arrested.

The restive southern Philippines is home to Muslim and communist rebels, and extortion and criminal activities are rampant.