Officials resumed talks Friday with government-armed former militiamen holding 57 villagers hostage in the southern Philippines, demanding that murder and banditry cases against them be dropped in exchange for the captives' release.
The abductions Thursday by 15 gunmen raised fresh questions over the government's long-standing policy of arming civilian volunteers to protect against insurgencies. Just the day before, 100 other militiamen in the south were accused of slaughtering civilians in the country's worst political massacre.
Hours after the kidnapping, a government negotiator persuaded the gunmen to free the 17 schoolchildren among more than 70 people they initially held.
They continued to hold 57 hostages, most of them women. Negotiations resumed early Friday outside three remote hilltop huts in the southern Philippine hinterland where the gunmen had holed up with their captives, said chief negotiator Josefina Bajade.
"So far, so good," she said, adding the gunmen "committed to me that nobody will be harmed."
A call to stop arming civilians
The hostage-takers in San Martin hamlet in Agusan del Sur province are former militiamen who had been dismissed and turned to banditry and extortion, targeting mining and logging companies in the area, said police Chief Superintendent Jaime Milla.
For decades, the Philippines government has armed civilian volunteers — often poorly trained and ill-disciplined — as a backup security force in areas with communist or Muslim insurgencies.
Human rights groups have called on the Philippines to stop arming civilians, saying the region is already awash with weapons from the continuing conflicts.
At least 100 government militiamen are among 161 suspects in last month's massacre of 57 people in an election convoy in Maguindanao province, on the opposite western side of volatile Mindanao Island.
The country's worst political killings prompted the government to send troops to disarm all paramilitary groups and declare martial law in the province. After the Nov. 23 killings, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo created an independent commission to oversee the dismantling of clan-dominated private armies — which usually consist of government militias.
The kidnappers had been pursued by police in a nearby village, where officers on Wednesday had failed to serve arrest warrants for two brothers among them, said Senior Superintendent Nestor Fajura, regional police operations officer.
Another attempt by police to arrest them Thursday sent the Perez brothers and the other gunmen fleeing and along the way randomly grabbing some 75 people at gunpoint, Fajura said.
‘Making them human shields’
Armed with M14 and M16 rifles and homemade shotguns, they rounded up villagers, teachers and students walking to school and gathered them at the local village hall before marching them up a hill about two miles (three kilometers) away, police said. They settled inside three huts as security forces encircled them and negotiations got under way.
"In my analysis ... the hostage taking was only for making them human shields," said provincial Vice Gov. Santiago Cane. "They want the standing warrant of arrest issued against them revoked."
Bajade quickly secured the release of all students and an elderly woman, who was washing clothes in a creek when she was seized and pleaded to be freed because of a sick stomach.
The murder charges against the Perez brothers, who police say are the gang leaders, reportedly stem from a violent clan feud, which Bajade said started when rival Tubay clansmen allegedly killed four members of the Perez family last year. The Perez brothers allegedly retaliated by killing six members of the Tubay clan, she said.
The gunmen demanded murder charges against them be dropped, the leader of the rival clan be arrested and police pull out of the area — something Fajura, the police official, said is impossible.
"We want to convince them to release the hostages for their own good. Their cases will just pile up," he said.
He said police have surrounded the area but were not taking any action against the gunmen to allow the negotiations to proceed.