As the bandits waited out the deluge last Friday, the 40 Scouts were able to creep within 30 m of their camp. Hoping to overwhelm the kidnappers with a surprise attack, they started firing. Their goal: to free the three hostages — a prize that over and over had eluded the Philippine army and the 1,200 American advisers sent in January to assist the local military. But when the fighting ended several hours later, things had gone badly wrong. Martin Burnham, 42, a Christian missionary from Kansas, lay dead in the jungle. The nurse, Ediborah Yap, 48, had been shot in the back and died moments later. A bullet passed through the leg of Gracia Burnham, 43, and she had to be airlifted to Manila for treatment. Four Abu Sayyaf gang members also died in the shoot-out, but about two dozen others, including the group's leader, Abu Sabaya, escaped back into the jungle that has so successfully shielded them for years.
It's hard to know exactly what happened. Soldiers involved in the shoot-out say they could see little through the rain and gun smoke and thick forest. One Scout who took part in the assault says he glimpsed the hostages on hammocks. When the firing started, they dropped to the ground but were pulled to their feet by the kidnappers and "used as human shields," according to Teodosio, who debriefed the Scouts. The bandits returned the army's fire, but it isn't yet clear how the hostages were hit — whether they were caught in the cross fire or targeted by Abu Sayyaf for execution. The army is preparing an official report. Gracia Burnham reportedly characterized her husband's death as "God's liking."
The mangled rescue operation could prompt the U.S. to reassess its mission in the Philippines. Now that there no longer are American hostages, there is less reason for military advisers to be on the ground. But they were sent as part of President Bush's war on terror, not only to help free the Burnhams but also to assist in Manila's pursuit of kidnapping gangs like Abu Sayyaf and fundamentalist Muslim separatist groups with links to al-Qaeda's web of terror. Washington was in no mood to second-guess the Philippine army's efforts. "The Burnhams have not been well, and they lived in captivity a long time," said U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "It seems to me that the attempt to save their lives was understandable."
For now, Washington will continue to provide the Filipinos with military training. The program had been slated to terminate July 31, but Pentagon officials expect the advisers to stay put. Although no Americans were directly involved in the mission (the Philippine constitution bars foreign troops from combat inside the country), local military officials credit the Americans with helping to track the rebels to southern Mindanao about two weeks ago, following intelligence reports that they had left their former base on nearby Basilan Island.
The end of the yearlong hostage drama now frees the Philippine army, with or without U.S. assistance, to pursue Abu Sayyaf more aggressively. Although the group is thought to have only about 200 members, it has bedeviled successive Philippine governments in recent years, carrying out kidnappings and otherwise terrorizing local residents. Manila has sent reinforcements to the region, hoping that a final showdown is near. But Abu Sayyaf has shown an uncanny ability to evade capture in the jungle — and continue its reign of terror.