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Kidnapping Westerners Makes Sense

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

HONG KONG - Western nations are partly to blame for the tragic, if sometimes seemingly farcical, hostage situation in the Philippines.

This week we had the Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, a practiced inciter of small wars, taking much-publicized credit for the release of hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf gang of thugs masquerading as Muslim independence fighters. Now we have the gang raising the ante, demanding even more money for the American hostage they have seized than they did for the European hostages they grabbed earlier from the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan.

The Abu Sayyaf gang are crude extortionists led by bizarre figures like Commander Robot, but they know their market.

In May, after the kidnappings, European Union envoy Javier Solana, who had been a driving force in the Kosovo war, rushed off to Manila to plead with the government of the Philippines not to do anything that would endanger the safety of the hostages. European lives, it was implied, were too precious to be risked by using force against force.

The Philippines, concerned about its own image and always ambiguous over whether to use force or money against kidnappers, kept its army at bay and entered into a long series of negotiations.

The message to Abu Sayyaf was clear. Force would not be used while they had Western hostages, and a high monetary price could be expected for their safe return.The gang's perception that the Europeans were an easy touch was enhanced by the readiness of some visiting journalists and camera teams to pay money for pictures and interviews.

Kidnap for ransom has a long history in the Philippines, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but usually both parties prefer to keep quiet about it. The Malaysians have indeed kept quiet about how much was paid by whom to whom for the release of their Sipadan hostages.

But the high-profile European response ensured that a high price could be extracted, although Manila's negotiator, Roberto Aventajado, was never willing to concede as much publicly and there was no way that his government would pay the ransom.

Enter Colonel Gadhafi. The Libyan role in the southern Philippines conflict has long been ambiguous but not always negative. It sponsored a 1976 Tripoli Agreement that is still the basis for dialogue between Manila and Muslim groups. Now, for a payment of a reported dollars 10 million to dollars 20 million, a small amount for Libya but a fortune for Abu Sayyaf, Colonel Gadhafi could brush up his image and perhaps distract attention from the Lockerbie bombing trial.

America may now be caught between not wanting to be seen to deal with the Libyans and appease gangsters and not wanting to do too little to secure the release of one of its citizens.

If it were Serbs or Palestinians doing the kidnapping, if it were an airplane or a French beach resort that had been targeted, Europeans and Americans would rightly have no hesitation, despite the risk to innocent lives, in using force against the gang.