MANILA, Philippines – A Sri Lankan peace activist became the latest victim of a wave of kidnappings in the southern Philippines blamed on Al Qaeda-linked militants, officials said Friday.
Omar Jalil, 36, from the nonpartisan group Nonviolent Peaceforce, which has been monitoring a decades-old Muslim separatist uprising in the Philippines, was taken by nine gunmen from his residence in coastal Lamitan town on Basilan island early Friday, said Basilan police chief Salik Macapantar.
The Filipino caretaker of the house managed to escape unharmed even as the gunmen opened fire, he said.
The caretaker was now guiding the navy and marines in combing the jungle hinterlands of Lamitan to try to locate the hostage, said the provincial vice governor, Al-Rasheed Sakalahul.
Suspected Abu Sayyaf militants, notorious for ransom kidnappings and terror attacks, are holding three teachers and a lending company employee on Basilan, and three Red Cross workers, including one Swiss and one Italian, on nearby Jolo island.
All were kidnapped this year, apparently as part of efforts by the Abu Sayyaf to raise badly needed funds after several of its leaders with connections to Middle Eastern financiers were killed in U.S.-backed offensives in recent years.
The Abu Sayyaf, which has more than 300 fighters, is on a U.S. blacklist of terrorist organizations because of links to Al Qaeda and involvement in kidnappings, beheadings and bombings.
At least two militants holding the three Red Cross hostages were killed and nine marines wounded in a clash Monday when the captors attempted to break through a military cordon that has boxed them in, said Brig. Gen. Gaudencio Pangilinan. The hostages were believed to be unhurt, he said.
Officials have been hesitant to resort to a military rescue and have asked about 30 Abu Sayyaf gunmen to surrender their captives unconditionally. Speculation has mounted about a ransom demand ranging from $5 million to $10 million.