Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Philippines detains Abu Sayyaf co-founder

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines announced on Wednesday that one of the co-founders of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf extremist group had been arrested after being detained at Jakarta airport for using a false passport.

Indonesian authorities picked up Abdul Basir Latip on November 21, but he was only brought back to Manila on Wednesday, said Philippine National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) spokesman Ricardo Diaz.

The NBI said Latip was a founding member of the Abu Sayyaf and had worked with its spiritual leader, Khadaffy Janjalani, who the Philippine military killed in 2006.

Daiz said Latip served as a conduit of funds between Al-Qaeda leaders in Saudi Arabia and the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim militant group blamed for the Philippines' worst terror attacks.

"His involvement was not as a fighter but as a finance officer and the conduit for Al-Qaeda to facilitate transfer of funds to the ASG (Abu Sayyaf group)," said Diaz.

The United States is also seeking Latip's extradition for the Abu Sayyaf's kidnapping of American missionary Charles Walton in the southern Philippines in 1993, according to Diaz.

Diaz alleged Latip had acted as a masked spokesman for the Abu Sayyaf during the Walton kidnapping, but he had been recognised through a birthmark on his left temple.

A Philippine court will decide whether Latip will be extradited to the United States to be tried for the kidnapping of Walton, who was released by the Abu Sayyaf after the Libyan government stepped in to mediate.

"There is still an extradition process ahead. It will be the court that will decide if he is to be extradited or not," Diaz said.

The bewhiskered Latip, wearing a T-shirt and a bandana, looked weary as he was processed by the National Bureau of Investigation in front of reporters, during which he insisted on his innocence.

"I was not a member of the ASG but I am a close friend of Janjalani," he said in clear English.

However he admitted to using a fake passport when detained in Jakarta. He said he had stopped there while returning to the Philippines from Jordan. It was not clear how long he had been overseas for.

The Abu Sayyaf was founded allegedly with Al-Qaeda seed money to fight for an independent Muslim state in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines.

Its militants, who have never numbered more than 1,000, operate in remote and often lawless islands of the southern Philippines, resorting to kidnappings for ransom and other crimes to raise funds.

They usually target Christians and foreigners and frequently behead their hostages if ransoms are not paid.

It is also blamed for the bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 that left more than 100 people dead, the nation's worst terrorist attack of recent times.

A small number of US troops have been based in the southern Philippines to help train Filipino soldiers in fighting the Abu Sayyaf since late 2001.

Philippine authorities say the Abu Sayyaf's numbers have fallen from about 1,000 eight years ago to about 300-400 now, thanks to the military campaign.

However they remain a danger in the southern Philippines.

One of three hostages kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf on the south's Basilan island on November 10 was murdered last week, with his severed head dumped in a local park.

The following day a college professor was abducted, and police again blamed the Abu Sayyaf.

In September, two US soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb on the southern Philippines' Jolo island in the deadliest attack on American forces so far by the militant group.(AFP)

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