August 23, 2001, Inquirer / AFP, Local witness tells senators of military-Abu 'connivance', Posted: 11:43 PM (Manila Time) By INQ7.net with Agence France-Presse
LAMITAN, Basilan—A local witness told senators from Manila on Thursday that an army general and four other senior officers assigned to lead a campaign against the Abu Sayyaf Muslim bandits had instead allowed them to escape when cornered with their hostages at the town on June 2.
Daniel Cawli, a doctor, testified that his staff saw Brigadier General Romeo Dominguez, commander of the First Infantry Division at the time, accept a briefcase full of cash from somebody shortly before the kidnap gang escaped with most of their captives.
The general, since reassigned to the central Philippines, refuted the allegations. "Being the division commander, I remember having given only one order. 'Assault, destroy the enemy before sundown,'" he said in a statement.
The members of the Senate defense committee also met behind closed doors with Roman Catholic parish priest Cirilo Nacorda during their six-hour visit. The priest was the first person who went public with the accusations, implying that some sort of pay-off from the Abu Sayyaf had taken place.
"Most of what he said had already been published in the media. But he said more that has not been divulged to the public," committee chair Ramon Magsaysay Jr. told reporters.
"We understand his predicament. He's accusing a military officer of a very serious charge. He's afraid something might happen to him. That's why we're here, to get the true picture of the story."
Nacorda, who barely gave the Abu Sayyaf the slip during the raid, told reporters he would take the stand when the House of Representatives defense committee takes its turn conducting a public hearing here on Friday.
"We were not prepared in today's hearing. Even my witnesses to corroborate my statements are not prepared," said Nacorda, who nevertheless accompanied the senators as they retraced what he said was the Abu Sayyaf's route to freedom.
Philippine senators flew to the hostage island of Basilan on Thursday to probe allegations that military officers were in league with Abu Sayyaf gunmen holding two American and 16 Filipinos hostages.
The Abu Sayyaf had occupied a church and adjoining hospital on the night of June 1, hauling with them most of the three Americans and 17 Filipinos they seized from an upmarket resort a few days earlier. Despite being surrounded, the rebels slipped through a backdoor with the hostages and an extra four hospital staff.
Municipal official David Pamaran, brother of one of the hostages, told the senate defense committee: "I am resigned to the possibility that I would never see my sister alive again. All we ask for is the crushing of the Abu Sayyaf."
Tarcila Malonzo appealed to the senators for help in winning the freedom of her 23-year-old daughter Reina Malonzo.
The remaining hostages include the US missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham. A third American, Peru-born Guillermo Sobero, is presumed dead.
Large numbers of residents turned out with pro-peace placards on the streets of Lamitan as the senators held a public hearing.