Rebels discover their goldmine in kidnappings

Matt Frei in Jolo
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The Independent Online

"You are most welcome but not your guns!" the poster warns at the picturesque port on the tiny island of Jolo in the southern Philippines. I wasn't sure who the warning was aimed at.

"You are most welcome but not your guns!" the poster warns at the picturesque port on the tiny island of Jolo in the southern Philippines. I wasn't sure who the warning was aimed at.

Most of the passengers on the ferry were local Filipinos on a shopping expedition, oblivious of the fact that only 15 miles from the port in the dense malaria-infested jungle 21 hostages were experiencing their holiday from hell.

Ten days ago they were still diving in the warm waters off the coast of Malaysia. Today they fear for their lives. Imagine their misery. Deprived of water in the searing temperatures, cramped into a tiny hut reeking of urine and diarrhoea, with guns poking in their faces.

Although Werner Wallert, the hostage from Göttingen in western Germany, is a geography teacher, he may not have known about the local dangers. The long-running war between Muslim rebels and the predominantly Christian army of the Philippines has its roots in the 16th century when the Spaniards colonised and tried to convert these islands.

And since the creation of the Filipino republic, the Sulu archipelago has continued to be bandit country, where the central government holds little sway and where an unlicensed gun is part of the national costume.

It's not surprising that they take their personal protection seriously here. Rashdi Abubakar, the suave mayor of Jolo, told us that out of 100,000 people in his municipality, 25,000 owned guns. Apart from the hostages we were the only foreigners. I asked him if we were safe. "In the centre of town, yes, maybe? But the minute you leave this area you are money on legs for the local kidnappers!"

This far-flung corner of Asia is beguiling. There are hundreds of tiny islands and coral reefs. It looks like an untouched tropical paradise. But there is a good reason why tourists have stayed away. Kidnapping is the only lucrative industry here.

Until recently they have specialised in abducting local Chinese businessmen. But their appetite for foreigners has grown. Last year one group kidnapped three civil engineers from Hong Kong, who were working on a local construction project. The company and the families paid the ransom of $100,000 (about £66,000).

Now the Abu Sayyaf rebels took the bold step of stealing them from another country. The remote diving resort on Sipadan island off the Malaysian coast was ideal. It only takes two hours by speedboat from there to Jolo. They have asked for a ransom of 100m pesos, about $2.5m.

Their demands have to be taken seriously. Last October they beheaded an 18-year-old Filipino when his parents were one day late in paying the ransom money. The head was left in a rubbish bin outside police headquarters.

With their Arab name, meaning "Bearer of the Sword", the Abu Sayyaf sound like a regular group of extremists with a command structure and a political agenda. But their politics are confused, their Muslim faith is diluted with drugs and alcohol and their main purpose is to make money from head-hunting. They buy their support among the villagers with handouts from the ransom. "If any government paid the $2.5m to free the hostages," the mayor told us, "we will inherit $2.5m worth of problems!"

Matt Frei is a BBC foreign affairs correspondent

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