WASHINGTON – Muslim extremists holding an American couple hostage in the Philippines stand to come under increased pressure from the U.S. government.
The Pentagon is debating a recommendation by its Pacific commander to move U.S. military advisers already in the Philippines closer to the search for the couple, defense officials said Wednesday on condition of anonymity.
At the same time, the U.S. government also is offering a reward of up to $5 million for help capturing leaders of Abu Sayyaf, the group that has held Kansas missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham for a year.
"We look at that as a big boost and a big compliment to our program," Philippine national security adviser Roilo Golez said of the reward announced Wednesday.
Both moves come as the clock ticks down on the Defense Department's six-month deployment to help the Asian ally fight terrorism on its soil.
Some 1,200 Americans are scheduled to be in the Philippines until July 31 to train and advise local forces fighting Abu Sayyaf, which is loosely linked to Usama bin Laden's terrorist network. The Americans include 160 military advisers, intelligence and logistical support and some 300 Navy Seabees — engineers there to improve military infrastructure.
But since their arrival in mid-February on the rebels' southern island base of Basilan, U.S. advisers have been confined to battalion training — that is, they work at the Philippine military headquarters on the island and remain behind when Filipino troops go out to hunt the enemy.
Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, has recommended the Green Berets begin training Filipinos at the lower company level, which would allow them to go with patrols and give on-the-spot advice as Filipino troops pursue the rebels, officials said.
Some 50 to 60 additional troops might be sent, not necessarily to add to the number of advisers but to provide additional support services for forces already there, another official said Thursday.
Though the special forces advisers are prohibited from engaging in combat, U.S. medics have entered combat zones at least three times in recent months to retrieve and treat Filipino wounded.
Accompanying local troops as they scour Basilan's jungles could put Americans in greater danger, obviously, and Congress asked months ago to be notified if the Pentagon wanted to do that. Defense officials said they would give notification.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is considering the idea and was expected to talk with Fargo this week about the recommendation, officials said. Also, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz began an Asian trip Wednesday night that includes a weekend visit to the Philippines.
The Philippine government is expected to approve the idea, Pentagon officials said.
Another question is whether the American training program should be extended beyond the sixth months agreed to by the two governments.
Officials have said they believe the American trainers, and sophisticated equipment they brought with them, have raised Filipino troop morale and resulted in the killings and surrender of some rebels.
But the effort has not completely destroyed the group, nor accomplished perhaps the biggest unspoken goal of the U.S. deployment: winning freedom for the Burnhams.
The Burnhams are thought to be constantly handcuffed to their captors. The military has received unconfirmed reports that one or both may be ill after a year of poor diet, extreme stress and constant movement through the jungle.
Explaining a plan announced by the U.S. Embassy in Manila on Wednesday, Ambassador Francis Ricciardone said a reward would be paid for any or all of five rebel leaders, including Abu Sabaya, accused of masterminding the May 2001 kidnapping of the Burnhams.
The five leaders, also including Isnilon Hapilon, Abu Solaiman, Hamsiraji Marusi Sali and Khaddafy Janjalani, have had a $100,000 Filipino government reward on their heads for nearly a year.
Sabaya said in a Thursday interview with RMN Radio in the Philippines that he will release the Filipina the group also is holding — nurse Ediborah Yap — at "any moment" because she had assisted the guerrillas. And he belittled the U.S. reward, calling it "a nice offer."
Military officers fighting Abu Sayyaf welcomed the new U.S. financial incentive.
"Any effort which will contribute to the resolution of this crisis, as long as this does not involve the payment of ransom, is good," said Col. Alexander Aleo, an army commander on Basilan.
Ransom reportedly already has been tried and failed.
Martin Burnham's father, Paul, is believed to have organized payment in March of $300,000, but rebel figures denied receiving it. Paul Burnham repeatedly has refused to talk about any ransom, saying only the rebels had reneged on a deal to free the hostages.