2000-05-04 00:00:00

Fifteen hostages seized by the Muslim extremist Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) in the southern Philippines were freed on the 12th day of a military rescue operation but four hostages died including a Claretian priest.

The remains of Father Rhoel Gallardo, pastor of Saint Vincent Ferrer parish in Tumahubong, Basilan, were among four battered bodies recovered May 3 by the military, Father Martin Jumoad told UCA News close to midnight that day.

The chancellor of Isabela prelature comprising Basilan province, received the bodies of Father Gallardo, a male and two woman teachers at a funeral home 10 kilometers outside the capital town of Isabela. One of the women was a teacher at the Claret School of Tumahubong.

"All their heads were blasted. There were big holes in the back of the heads and the brains were all blown out. The women´s breasts were separated from their chest," Father Jumoad said over telephone May 3.

He rejected television news reports that the dead were killed "by stray bullets in the crossfire" saying, "These were brutal executions."

On April 22, the military attacked the ASG´s Camp Abdurajak where the extremists held 29 of some 50 hostages they seized from Tumahubong on March 20. The other hostages had been freed.

The military assault to rescue the remaining hostages was hampered by heavy rains and mines in the periphery of the fort.

When army troops reached the mountaintop fort on April 30, all they found were abandoned shacks, bunkers and deep tunnels. Dead bodies presumably of ASG members scattered the grounds.

Freed hostages told Bishop Romulo de La Cruz of Isabela May 3 that they were taken by fleeing ASG members across a river toward the beach where the abductors planned to commandeer boats to Jolo, southwest of Basilan.

They were to join another ASG band holding tourists and employees kidnapped from a Malaysian dive resort on April 23.

The Basilan survivors said fighting ensued when they encountered soldiers during the escape. "ASG men yelled for all to get down. Those who did, survived, but they said Father Rhoel and the others killed were tied together," Bishop de La Cruz explained.

"I was told that when they couldn´t get down on the ground, the ASG shot them in the back, perhaps out of frustration," he said.

The bishop asked Father Jumoad "to mobilize families and workers at the Claret Formation Center to prepare to receive the hostages," shortly after the priest heard of freed hostages over the 4:30 p.m. television news May 3.

"I went ahead arriving at the brigade post in Tabiawan with three (Notre Dame) sisters around 5:45 p.m. We were happy to see 10, not three, freed hostages," Father Jumoad said.

He added, "I did not recognize the Claret school principal because he had lost so much weight, so he came to me and said, ´I am Mister Rubio!´"

Also freed then were a woman teacher of Claret school, a male public school teacher and seven children including a boy who suffered from shrapnel wounds.

Besides the 10, there were a husband and wife, and three wounded children who were brought to the Armed Forces Southern Command facility in Zamboanga City, just north of Basilan.

The military later informed the bishop´s office of the arrival of four dead bodies.

"I got tongue-tied but eventually I said we will come for them too," Father Jumoad said, adding that he later agreed to have the dead brought directly to the funeral home, where he later identified Father Gallardo.

Bishop de La Cruz told UCA News, "I held up all night but I broke down in tears during my homily this morning." The bishop offered Mass for the slain priest and teachers at Santa Isabel Cathedral at 7 and 11 a.m. May 4.

The bishop was vice chair of the Crisis Management Committee that supported the military rescue efforts after its attempt to negotiate with the ASG failed and the extremists announced that they beheaded two male hostages.

Ten other hostages remain with the ASG. Bishop de La Cruz said that one other woman teacher reportedly seized in March has not been seen in the camp by the hostages. Survivors have also not seen two male teachers since the ASG announced their execution on April 19.


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