International Papers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 

In the Philippines, a militant Islamic group released six of the 12 Western hostages it held, along with more than a dozen Filipinos, on the remote island of Jolo. The group, Abu Sayyaf, had been holding most of the Westerners since April 23. After weeks of assurances by the Philippine government that ransoms would not be paid to the group, Libya arranged payments of $1 million per hostage, claiming the money represented “development aid” to impoverished Muslims in the southern Philippines. Upon their release, the six hostages were taken to Tripoli, where, according to the Times of London, several of them appeared at a welcoming ceremony wearing T-shirts adorned with Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi’s portrait. The remaining Western hostages had been expected to be ransomed and released this week, although the group’s capture of a U.S. citizen Monday now makes this less likely.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said that Qaddafi’s “new image of a liberator of hostages is one he should enjoy for the very short time it lasts.” Noting that the head of Abu Sayyaf was radicalized while studying in Tripoli, the editorial declared, “It is ironic for the leader of a former ‘rogue state’ to become the saviour of victims of a guerilla group he helped start.” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung defended the German government’s acceptance of Libyan involvement in freeing the hostages, claiming that while they had first refused to consider any ransom payment, “[o]nce it transpired that the Muslim bandits were more interested in cash than in political demands … the Europeans had no choice but to be thankful that the rebels’ cupidity coincided so nicely with Colonel Gadhafi’s desire to polish his regime’s severely tarnished image.” (One of the released is German, and another German remains in captivity.) Nevertheless, the paper concluded that the “drama … is bound to continue, thanks to what the bandits obviously perceive as Europe’s encouragement of their essentially dirty business.”

The ransom payments will surely destabilize the region even further. Die Welt of Germany stated, “The new weapons and renewed confidence of the Abu Sayyaf wastrels is going to set back the development and pacification of the southern Philippines by years.” An excellent assessment of the group in Britain’s Independent suggested that the multimillion-dollar payment marks the group’s “emergence as one of the world’s most successful Islamic terrorist groups, and a force to be reckoned with throughout South-East Asia.” It reported that Abu Sayyaf is spending its ransom windfall on arms, ammunition, 10 motorcycles, and a speedboat. (Most of the Western captives were snatched by boat while on a diving vacation on a remote Malaysian resort island.) The piece concluded:

Most significantly, it is offering $1,100 to new recruits—a sum a Muslim fisherman with a family can only dream of earning legitimately. As many as 2,500 new recruits have responded because, whatever the hostage crisis of the past four months may have done for the cause of independence, [it] has turned into very good business for Abu Sayyaf. 

On Monday, the group seized 24-year-old Jeffrey Craig Schilling, an American it claims is a CIA agent. The U.S. government declared Schilling is not in the CIA and insisted that it will not negotiate with the group for his release. An op-ed in the Manila Times interpreted this to mean that an Entebbe-style military raid by the United States may be in the offing. It argued that presidential politics make a raid more likely; with both the Republicans and Democrats “intensely wooing the black American vote,” the fate of Schilling, an African-American, is unlikely to be ignored. A news story speculated that Schilling might be involved in “a ‘kidnap me’ scenario.” Noting that his Filipina partner is a cousin of the Abu Sayyaf spokesman, the story said “military officials” believed he “could have volunteered for the stunt, in the hope of getting part of the ransom money.” Another op-ed in the same paper worried about the fate of Abu Sayyaf’s Filipino hostages (the author was apparently unaware that Schilling is black):

[T]his much is a given: the Caucasian captives have better chances of being freed than their brown-skinned counterparts. I think the word to use is redeemed, rather than freed. Pity those Filipino captives. Who will take them out of the “pawn shop”?

In Sierra Leone Friday, a militia group known as the West Side Boys kidnapped 11 British soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment, along with a colleague from the Sierra Leone army. Nearly 300 British soldiers are based in the West African nation, 90 training the country’s army to fight the insurgent Revolutionary United Front and the rest protecting the trainers. (Click here for background on the Sierra Leonean conflict, courtesy of Britain’s Guardian.) The Guardian described the West Side Boys as “an ill-disciplined gang” that “has gained a grisly reputation for extortion, rape and murder.” Although the hostage-taking was embarrassing, especially since the West Side Boys are nominally on the same side as the British troops, the group doesn’t pose the same threat to life and limb as the brutal RUF. An op-ed in Canada’s National Post said the incident “illustrates yet again the perils of toe-in-the-water peacekeeping in Africa”—with so few troops serving just six-week tours, the British soldiers are extremely vulnerable to “every opportunistic faction in the business.” Five of the Britons were released late Wednesday night.

On July 30, notorious Indian bandit and elephant poacher Veerappan kidnapped popular actor Rajkumar and made a series of demands, ranging from a permanent solution to a long-standing water dispute between two southern Indian states to the release of several imprisoned “associates.” Government officials agreed to most of his demands and ordered the release of up to 121 prisoners, but on Tuesday the Indian Supreme Court put the discharges on hold until a petition from the father of a policeman believed killed by Veerappan could be heard. The Hindustan Times praised the court and attacked the behavior of politicians, who, it suggested, were seeking a rapid end to the crisis “if only because they wanted to get over the embarrassment caused by the exposure of their pathetic failure to nab the dacoit. They may have also suspected that questions will increasingly be asked as to whether Veerappan’s invulnerability had something to do with his ‘political’ clout.” The Times of India demanded that the “Bandit King” be demystified and reminded readers that he has murdered more than 130 people, has killed at least 2,000 elephants for ivory, and makes most of his money from sandalwood smuggling. “Despite the gravity of his offenses, however, he has been projected as a colourful crusader pitted against the power of the state. This is a dangerous distortion.” It concluded:

If Veerappan has his way this time, it is not only he who will be the victor; the real winner will be the pernicious system of which he is only a virulent symptom.

Is it a coup? Is it a fire? A fire at Moscow’s Ostankino TV tower killed three people and left 18 million Muscovites without TV service for three days. The Moscow Times reported that some panicked viewers associated the TV blackout with the times their “screens went blank for a few hours when government opponents attacked the television center in 1993 and how ‘Swan Lake’ replaced the news during the 1991 coup attempt.” The International Herald Tribune noted that, with residents deprived of “sex talk shows” and Argentine soap operas, the city’s newsstands sold out of papers, and video stores did booming business. By Wednesday, three stations had resumed broadcasting.  

“International Papers” will return to its Monday/Thursday schedule Monday, Sept. 11.