MANILA, Philippines » Philippine officials said Wednesday they have received no word from the abductors of a naturalized American woman, her teenage son and Filipino nephew a day after they were seized by suspected Muslim militants.
More than a dozen gunmen seized Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann, her 14-year-old son and 19-year-old nephew from their relatives’ house they were visiting on an island village near southern Zamboanga city.
The head of a government crisis committee, Zamboanga Mayor Celso Lobregat, said authorities were verifying reports that the hostages were taken aboard two boats to nearby Basilan Island.
The area is a stronghold of al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf extremists who have been blamed for ransom kidnappings and deadly bombings over the past two decades. Philippine military officials said they are also looking at a possible involvement of a commander of the largest Muslim separatist group which has a formal cease-fire with the government.
A spokesman for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Von Al Haq, said his group had nothing to do with the hostage-taking.
Lobregat said that U.S. Embassy personnel have been in touch with the crisis committee.
The State Department said it was concerned about the individuals’ safety and well-being, and called for their immediate release and prosecution of those responsible.
The victims’ friends in Campbell County in Virginia reacted with shock and anger. WDBJ-TV quoted the Lunsmanns’ friend, Jean Gowen, as saying that 14-year-old Kevin had expressed fears about going to the Philippines because his family’s compound there was under constant guard.
Lunsmann’s husband Hiko was monitoring the situation from the family house and has spoken with his wife’s family in the Philippines, WDBJ-TV said.
Lunsmann, 41, is originally from Pangapuyan, a tiny island village not far from where she and her son were vacationing with relatives when they were snatched, police Chief Inspector Nonito Asdai said.
Asdai said she was adopted by an American couple when she was 9 and grew up in the U.S.
The last time Americans were held hostage in the southern Philippines was in 2002, when U.S.-backed Filipino troops stormed an Abu Sayyaf jungle camp to rescue missionary Gracia Burnham and her husband, Martin. He was killed in the operation. A third American, Guillermo Sobero, was earlier beheaded by the militants on Basilan.
Since then, hundreds of U.S. troops in the south have been training Filipino soldiers and sharing intelligence with them as part of Philippine government offensives that have killed and captured dozens of militants.