|Philippine military face criticism as they hunt kidnappers - Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo comforts a wounded soldier inside a military transport plane in Manila on June 3. Wounded troops were brought to the capital for treatment of injuries suffered in clashes with Muslim guerrillas in the south of the country. REUTERS/Alex de la Rosa|
MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine armed forces, under fire for letting Muslim rebel kidnappers slip through their fingers, said on Monday that they had yet to pin down where the rebels had gone to ground with their U.S. and Filipino hostages.
A military spokesman said troops were tracking the Abu Sayyaf rebels, who numbered about 100 and had an estimated 20 hostages with them, into the mountainous interior of the southern island of Basilan and he accused local residents of helping them.
"We are doing our best to track them down," Brigadier-General Edilberto Adan told reporters, adding that the rebels had moved up to 20 km (12 miles) from the town of Lamitan, where they were holed up at the weekend before breaking out at night.
"We are still looking for them now in the jungles of Lamitan," he said.
"This conflict could not be sustained by bandit groups of armed men without logistics support," he added.
"Logistics support comes from the people... people who sympathise with them. They provide medicines, clothes, shelter, basically a base where they could relax," he added.
Civilian officials criticised the military for allowing the rebels to break through a military cordon in Lamitan on Sunday and accused some officers of ignoring advice on local conditions.
The Abu Sayyaf professes to fight for an Islamic state in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines but its main pursuit seems to be kidnap for ransom.
It took 20 hostages, including three Americans, from an island resort 500 km (300 miles) away on May 27 but nine escaped or were rescued and two were found dead, apparently executed in line with an earlier threat if the military pursuit continued.
Its fighters took fresh hostages after seizing a hospital and a church in Lamitan on Saturday.
They broke through a military cordon and made off with nine of the original hostages, including the Americans, and 11 others -- including nurses, a midwife and a school principal taken from the hospital.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, an admirer of Britain's "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher, has vowed the action will not stop until the rebels are vanquished or surrender unconditionally.
Last year, the government of previous president Joseph Estrada tried to negotiate with the Abu Sayyaf after a series of kidnappings of foreigners and Filipinos and saw millions of dollars handed over only for the gunmen to kidnap more victims.
Basilan, 900 km (550 miles) south of the capital Manila, is predominantly Muslim. Its governor, the top civilian official, is a former rebel whose group signed a peace deal with the government.
"I told them (the troops) to be careful at night because the rebels would breach the cordon," Governor Wahab Akbar said of the fighting in Lamitan. "They would not believe me."
Akbar accused a local military commander of ignoring advice. "All of us felt challenged by his arrogance. So none of us cooperated," he said.
Adan, the military spokesman, said that political decisions were needed to cope with local support for the kidnappers.
"Those are the factors precisely that have given them strength. Now to address that requires more than military action. This is something beyond the military, this is a political decision, this is up to our higher authorities," he added.