Zamboanga City, Jan. 20, 2003 (By Al Jacinto, PHNO reporter) - Abu Sayyaf rebels whose group is tied to Osama bin Laden have killed more than 300 government soldiers and kidnapped at least 140 people in a span of two years in the southern Philippines, the US Pacific Command (Pacom) reported.

The US military branded the Abu Sayyaf -- which means "Bearer of the Sword" in Arabic -- as a cross between a chilling gang of bandits, kidnappers and hijacking religion itself to gain local support. It said the group is a franchise operation of the Al Qaeda network and has terrorized the southern Philippines with bombings and outright massacres and has also been linked to several international terrorist plots and militants.

About 140 hostages have been taken and at least 16 people were killed during the Abu Sayyaf's last two years of violent kidnapping sprees, but the number held for short terms and for smaller ransoms are not included, the US Pacific Command website said. It added that more than 300 Filipino soldiers were illed in the fight to eliminate Abu Sayyaf.

But Brig. Gen. Eduardo Purificacion, spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), on Monday said the US military report was exagerated. "We have to check on the reports of the US Pacific Command because the Abu Sayyaf have kidnapped around 50 people the past years," he said.

Purificacion also said that less than 50 government soldiers were killed in clashes with the Muslim rebels the past two years. "There were many Abu Sayyaf rebels killed and wounded and captured and arrested by Philippine authorities and many of these accomplishments were not even reported," Purificacion said. "Offensive operation is continuing against the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines."

The US military report said at one point that Abu Sayyaf had several hundred active freedom fighters based on Basilan and the two smaller neighboring islands of Jolo and Tawi-Tawi in the southern Philippines.

The Abu Sayyaf also raided the Sipadan island resort off Sabah in 2000 and kidnapped 21 Asian and European holidaymakers and freed most of their hostages several months later after Libya and Malaysia paid some $25 million ransom.

The report said: "After the sudden influx of Libyan kidnap ransom, the number probably swelled to around 1,200 young men, lured mainly by the attractive salary and armaments. The current strength is widely disputed because of the group's fragmented state."

"One faction may only have as many as 80 committed fighters remaining, but the strength of both groups together as well as a fluid support network is significantly greater. There are even allegations that the network's allure may have infiltrated the military, who, although tasked with eradication of the group, might have benefited from allowing escapes and narrow misses," it said.

Southern Philippines armed forces' commander Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya said the military have degraded the capability of the Abu Sayyaf to sow terror, although he admitte that "there is still so much to be done (to eradicate terrorism)."

Abaya said: "We have significantly degraded the ability of the Abu Sayyaf with our continous offensive. From 800 rebels in 2002, there are now about 400 Abu Sayyaf members in the southern Philippines. We have arrested many terrorists and we are gaining grounds in our fight against terrorism. We have a popular public support."

Abu Sayyaf rebels are still holding three Indonesian seamen and four Filipino evangelists kidnapped last year in Jolo island. Two Filipino captives were already beheaded by the kidnappers in August last year and threated to execute the remianing victims if the military mounted a rescue operation.

The Abu Sayyaf was founded by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, an Islamic scholar and mujaheedin in the Afghan-Soviet war, after he, like the contemporaries that formed his initial recruiting crop, returned to Bsilan island from studies in Saudi Arabia and Libya determined to fulfill the Muslim ideal of an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

The group first mobilized in August 1991, with the bombing of a ship the MV Doulos in Zamboanga City harbor and a grenade attack on a performance by Christian missionaries that left two persons dead. Attacks on Catholic congregations hand grenades thrown into churches attacks on ethnic Chinese and abduction of priests, nuns, and teachers in the Catholic community soon followed, the US military report said. It said the Abu Sayyaf's activities were domestic in scope and remained relatively unknown until it blasted out of obscurity with the April 23, 2000, kidnapping at Sipadan. The hostages included several foreigners, and as international journalists flocked to the area, Abu Sayyaf held groups of reporters against their will and demanded ransom. Suddenly, its agenda was thrust onto the world media stage. From then on, it operated as an organization with global reach, focusing not only the creation of an independent Muslim state but the founding of a commission to improve the plight of ethnic Filipinos in Malaysia and, eventually, the release of incarcerated World Trade Center bomber Ramsey Yousef, a group ally who trained them in explosives.

"In its inchoate stages and while under Janjalani's leadership, Abu Sayyaf was plugged into the international network of Islamic militants that received the support of Osama bin Laden. Abu Sayyaf-al Qaeda links are strong. Many of its fighters claimed to have trained in Afghanistan, including as many as 20 who were in the graduating class of a Mazar-e Sharif camp in 2001," the report by US Pacom said.

It said Zamboanga City, a Mindanao Islamic hotbed, was frequented by members of the Al Qaeda and that the best indicator of the group's influence is the relationship Janjalani forged with Saudi Arabian businessman Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law.

Khalifa's network of Islamic charities and university called Al Makdoum in Zamboanga City were both used to bankroll Muslim extremists. The report said Khalifa's main organization, the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) whose headquarters in Zamboanga City was shut down in the mid-1990s, as does a bin Laden foundation.

Abu Sayyaf received training and money funneled through Khalifa's network. It was during this time of close association with Khalifa and the Al Qaeda network that the Abu Sayyaf began plotting its two biggest endeavors -- the assassination of the Pope during a visit to Manila also in the 1990s, and a plan to hijack and blow up 12 US civilian airliners in a single day through Ramsey Yousef.

After these plans were foiled by an accidental fire in Yousef's apartment in Makati City, authorities began to see Abu Sayyaf as a major threat to security in the Philippines -- and as a true threat to international security. Yousef's group was also believed as behind the bombing in Cebu of a Philippine Air Liner bound for Japan that killed one passenger.

After Janjalani's death during a police confrontation in 1998, the glue of Islamic fundamentalism with which he held the organization together dissolved, and Abu Sayyaf split into three less-focused splinter groups and turned mainly to increasingly brutal murders and kidnappings. The $25 million ransom was ostensibly a goodwill gesture by Libya to release the Sipadan hostages, but served only to finance the group's arms procurement and recruitment. Speedboats used in other kidnappings were allegedly bought with the money, as was a rocket launcher that killed an army captain pursuing the rebels in Basilan island.

The Pacom report said since kidnapping has proven profitable, the Abu Sayyaf has been a group motivated not by ideology but by money. The character of the group has changed as well ad hoc strategies and activities are determined by the mood swings of individual leaders, many with eccentric nicknames reflecting bizarre bandit camaraderie. Discipline is haphazard, and some are addicted to drugs.

It said: "American military advisors may increase the effectiveness of what were previously largely unsuccessful military operations against the group. Abu Sayyaf fighters are undoubtedly intent to inflict casualties on the American troops to embarrass the anti-terrorism operation and inspire other terrorist organizations. Several Abu Sayyaf group members are accomplished marksmen who can hit targets over long ranges and through varied weather conditions."

Last year, some 3,000 US and Philippines soldiers held a six-month joint antiterror training exercises in Zamboanga City and Basilan island. Hundreds of American and Filipino soldiers are also to start new training exercises in Zamboanga City next month and would last until later this year.

A US military spokesman Capt. Steve Wollman said an advance team of at least a dozen US Special Forces trainors from Okinawa, Japan have arrived Zamboanga City late Saturday.

Wollman, of the Joint Special Operations Task Force - Philippines, said the US soldiers came from the headquarters of the Army's First Special Forces based in Japan."They are here. Twelve people from the First Special Forces based in Okinawa have arrived. They are the advance party of the trainors and part of the five special forces team that are due to arrive here in two weeks time," Wollman told reporters.

The commander of the US Special Operations Command-Pacific Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster earlier said some 300 US troops are arriving in two weeks time to began training of Philippine soldiers in antiterrorism.

Wollman said: "The trainors are now preparing and familiarizing themselves with everything and in two weeks more are arriving here for the training."

No other details were released by the US military about the first batch of soldiers. But Wollman said there would be a formal opening ceremony of the training exercises which would start early in February at a Philippine Army base in Malagutay village. Wurster earlier said that five of those who arrived here were special forces commanders.

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