August 30, 2001, Inquirer News Service, We paid official to escape, says Abu Sayyaf leader, by Arlyn de la Cruz,
Posted:10:59 PM (Manila Time)
Money for freedom
"WE paid so that we could escape."
This is what Abu Sayyaf spokesperson Abu Sabaya told this reporter in a phone call the other day.
"It's true we just walked out of the place, but shots were fired too," Sabaya said.
Sabaya, who initiated the call, answered questions about the allegations of Lamitan, Basilan parish priest Cirilo Nacorda that some military officials had connived with the Abu Sayyaf.
"Nacorda's version is just 80-percent true," Sabaya said.
He said that, during a lull in the fighting on the afternoon of June 2, the group's leader, Khaddafy Janjalani, spoke to a local government official using a satellite phone. The official then sent a male emissary to talk to the Abu Sayyaf.
At the Lamitan hearings conducted by the House defense committee last weekend, Nacorda and some local residents testified that local government officials in the province were protecting the Abu Sayyaf. Basilan Gov. Wahab Akbar was one of those mentioned by some of the witnesses.
Sabaya quoted Janjalani as telling the official in Filipino: "It would be a waste if those foreigners die."
Janjalani explained to the local official how much money would go to waste if the foreign hostages got hurt in the cross fire. Sabaya said it did not take them long to convince the local official.
The local official assured them: "Makakaalpas kayo (You can escape)."
But Sabaya said the official told them through his emissary that their group would have to give a certain amount to some military officials. The official did not name the military officials, however.
Earlier that day, Sabaya said, another Abu Sayyaf leader, Abu Soliman, was on the satellite phone negotiating the ransom. But at that point the ransom money had not yet arrived. (Soliman was later killed in an encounter.)
Short of cash, Sabaya said that they destroyed the cash vault of the Jose Torres Hospital and found nearly 700,000 pesos in cash.
The black attaché case which witnesses reported seeing in the hands of a military official was actually taken from one of the rooms in the hospital, Sabaya said. The cash from the hospital vault was then placed inside the case and given to the emissary.
To date, no ex-hostage or other witnesses of the hospital siege have said anything about the bandits stealing cash from the hospital, although some have recalled that the Abu Sayyaf stole valuables from both the church and the adjoining hospital.
At around 4:30 in the afternoon, another exchange of gunfire ensued. It was at this point, Sabaya said, that he called the local official through his satellite phone and shouted, "Akala ko ba ayos na (I thought all was clear)?"
Sabaya said the local official told him there was already an order for the backup troops (possibly the Philippine Marines) to position themselves in another area. The official also reportedly told him that the Army troops directly confronting them were not to be augmented anymore.
At around 5:30 in the afternoon, the firefight resumed, but Sabaya said that by that time his group was already certain they would no longer meet the blocking force deployed in the area.
Sabaya said that he believed the ground troops had no idea what was happening, however.
Asked whether the Abu Sayyaf had a standing agreement with the local official they contacted, Sabaya answered No. What happened, he said, was just a "temporary" arrangement.
Why, this reporter asked him. He answered, "Isn't it obvious? Money was the reason. That official's greedy."
According to Sabaya, the group with its hostages entered Lamitan shortly after midnight of June 2.
Their main purpose was to simply get food and soft drinks as requested, he said, by the hostages they had abducted from the upscale Dos Palmas resort in Palawan on May 27.
They also intended to get medicine from the Jose Torres Hospital as first aid for those wounded in an earlier encounter with the military in the neighboring town of Tuburan.
They also forcibly entered St. Peter's Parish, positioning a sniper at the church bell tower for security purposes.
It was around two in the morning when a truck loaded with military personnel was spotted by the sniper heading in the direction of the church and the adjacent hospital.
"We positioned ourselves," Sabaya said, stressing that at that point they thought the military was already aware of their presence. He said they only found out later that the Scout Ranger team they ambushed had no idea they were in the area.
Sabaya noted that most of the Rangers killed in the ambush were not carrying firearms.
This statement tallies with the account of Capt. Ruben Guinolbay, commander of the Scout Ranger unit, who testified at the Lamitan hearings.
He said he and his men were on their way to get their firearms when they were fired on by the Abu Sayyaf.
The payoff for the escape allegedly took place during a prolonged lull in the firefight, at around three in the afternoon of June 2.
As one of the Manila-based journalists who covered the Lamitan siege, this reporter must note that Sabaya's version of "silence" from both sides was true.
This was about the same time that the journalists were either calling their stations through satellite phones or writing their stories, eating, or catching up on their sleep.
Akbar is acknowledged by the Abu Sayyaf as one of their founding leaders. But the group also confirms Akbar's claim that they have parted ways because of ideological differences. Akbar was their Arabic teacher, and specialized in Arab translation and the Koran.
In radio interviews, Akbar denies any link with the Abu Sayyaf, stressing that he is in fact their No. 1 enemy.