Ex-hostages say Sayyaf thriving-A A +A
Saturday, February 9, 2013
MANILA - When they were taken hostage last year in the jungles of southern Philippines, Ramel Vela and Roland Letriro were pleasantly surprised when their al-Qaeda-linked captors handed each of them a hotel-like comfort pack that included a bedsheet, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a glass, plates, spoons and two sets of new clothes.
In the mountain encampments that would be their prison in Sulu province for nearly eight months, the recently released captives said they saw an Abu Sayyaf force of about 400 heavily armed fighters who puffed Marlboro cigarettes and enjoyed the luxury of cellphones, including some with cameras and access to email and Facebook.
Vela and Letriro's ordeal provide a glimpse into the Abu Sayyaf's resiliency despite a decade of American-backed local offensives that have battered the group, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations and remains one of Southeast Asia's most dangerous al-Qaeda-inspired offshoots.
Rice, fish, beef, medicine, bottles of Coke and other supplies filtered from the town market, which the militants visited from time to time, or from an unknown network of supporters, into the Abu Sayyaf's far-flung lairs, said Vela and Letriro, who were freed on February 2, reportedly in exchange for ransom.
It's unclear where the militants got their weapons and ammunition.
"We didn't see all their weapons, but the ones I saw were very powerful," Vela said.
The 39-year-old cameraman was seized along with audio technician Letriro and veteran Jordanian TV journalist Baker Atyani by Abu Sayyaf militants in Sulu, about 950 kilometers (590 miles) south of Manila.
Atyani, who gained prominence for interviewing Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan a few months before the September 11, 2001 attacks, remains in the hands of Abu Sayyaf gunmen, who are demanding a $3 million ransom, police said.
Vela said about 400 militants armed with assault rifles, explosives and machetes were split into several groups, which alternately held them in different encampments of bamboo huts nestled amid mangosteen trees and coconut groves.
The gunmen stayed in community-like encampments with their wives and children, who were immediately moved away, along with the hostages, at the first sign of a looming military attack.
While most of the militants were barely educated, some did attend college and others kept to a conservative Muslim way of life. They prayed in a makeshift mosque before dawn, at noon and early evening each day, helping the captives keep a rough track of time, Vela said.
In one encampment, women were completely covered with gowns and religious veils, which left only their eyes exposed. The men there never smoked or played cards, unlike in the other camps, according to the two former captives.
Once, the two asked the gunmen what they were fighting for and were told they wanted to seize the predominantly Muslim provinces of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi Tawi and form a separate Islamic state.
The gunmen have demanded control of the three provinces in exchange for the freedom of two Caucasians, who they claimed were separately being held in Sulu's jungles, Vela said, adding that he and Letriro never saw other hostages aside from Atyani, who was separated from them five days after they were held.
Gunmen kidnapped Ewold Horn of the Netherlands and Lorenzo Vinciguerra of Switzerland while on a bird watching trip to nearby Tawi Tawi province in February last year and took them by boat to Sulu, police said.
Vela and Letriro said they were treated well, and added that their long captivity in the jungle-clad mountains at times felt like a break.
"It's a vacation that was not relaxing and came with a lot of explosions," Vela said, describing close brushes with gunbattles between troops and the militants.
But there were constant fears of meeting a brutal death.
A major clash raged for more than five hours between the Abu Sayyaf and the military in October, leaving Vela and Letriro trembling in fear in a bunker hole, where they said they were asked to hide as army artillery rounds exploded all over.
In calmer times, the militants passed the time by fiddling with their cellphones, which they charged using a portable solar panel, they said.
Some of the gunmen owned up to three cellphones each, which they used to watch videos of their clashes with government forces, including the beheading of slain soldiers. The two captives said they were horrified when they were shown the videos on the phones.
"I thought that jungle would be our graveyard," Letriro said. (AP/Sunnex)