WASHINGTON – The U.S. government facilitated a ransom payment to Al Qaeda-linked terrorists in the Philippines last week for the release of an American couple but the two have not been freed, Fox News has learned.
The ransom of up to $3 million was paid to Abu Sayyaf guerrillas who have been holding two American missionaries, Paul Burnham and his wife, Gracia, for the last 10 months. The ransom was paid with private, not government, money, sources said.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would not comment on the revelation, nor would officials with the FBI or the U.S. State Department.
News that the government facilitated the ransom payment comes just one month after State Department officials announced a change in longstanding U.S. policy of not paying ransoms to kidnappers. At the time, officials said the new policy reflected the possibility such payments could be used to help track down the hostage takers.
Critics say it's a mistake to allow any ransom payment, particularly to Abu Sayyaf terrorists. The group has reportedly raised some $25 million in ransom money in recent years, then disappeared into the jungles of the southern Philippines.
Such a policy "just encourages kidnapping, not only with the Abu Sayyaf but other organizations around the world," said Dana Dillon, of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Burnham and his wife were kidnapped May 27 of last year from a Philippine beach resort by the rebels. Their captors have demanded an end to sanctions against Iraq and have protested the "desecration" of Saudi Arabia by U.S. and European troops.
U.S. and Philippine officials have said the guerrillas are linked to Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. About 660 U.S. soldiers are currently in the country training Philippine troops to better fight the rebels and rescue the two Americans.
The Burnhams, from Wichita, Kan., are believed to be held on the southern island of Basilan, moving constantly through the jungle at night, caught in frequent firefights between the military and their captors.
The Abu Sayyaf is comprised of about 80 fighters renowned for kidnapping foreigners and beheading captives. Last June they beheaded Guillermo Sobero, a Corona, Calif., resident taken hostage along with the Burnhams.
Another 17 hostages taken with the Burnhams are now free, either because a ransom was paid, they managed to escape or were released by the rebels.
The group claims it is fighting for Muslim independence in the southern Philippines, but the government has dismissed them as bandits.