MANILA // Suspected bandits abducted dozens of villagers in the southern Philippines today and were still holding about 60 of them hostage, including schoolchildren and teachers, officials said. The gunmen, believed to be former government-armed militiamen, seized about 75 people from the remote hamlet of San Martin in Agusan del Sur province and the local village school, but after negotiations with local officials released 15 of the students.
Police were pursuing the gunmen, who appeared to be using the hostages as human shields to escape after a clash with authorities in a nearby village yesterday, Vice Governor Santiago Cane Jr said. The volatile southern Philippines is plagued by banditry, loosely supervised government-armed militias, and Muslim and communist insurgents. Last month, 57 people traveling in an election convoy were killed in another southern province, Maguindanao, which has since been placed under martial law as authorities crack down on the powerful clan believed behind the attack.
Police Chief Supt Jaime Milla said the gunmen in today's abductions were former militiamen who have been dismissed and turned to banditry and extortion, targeting mining and logging companies in Agusan del Sur and nearby provinces. Mr Cane said police had clashed with the gunmen in another village, Purisima, yesterday, but no casualties were reported. He believed the gunmen were passing through nearby San Martin and took the hostages at the school to help win passage out of the area.
"In my analysis ... the hostage taking was only for making them human shields," he said. "They want the standing warrant of arrest issued against them revoked." Provincial social welfare officer Josefina Bajade said she was able to win the release of 15 pupils. It was unclear how many more children were among the remaining hostages, who also included teachers and parents of some of the students. "I am now with the group negotiating," Bajade said. "My priority is the minors."