, PROSPERIDAD, Dec 10 – Tribal gunmen raided a school in the violence-wracked southern Philippines on Thursday and abducted 75 people in a bid to highlight a long list of grievances, police said.
The mass kidnappings continued a terrifying outburst of crimes for the Mindanao region in recent weeks, following the beheading of a logging company employee on Wednesday and a political massacre that left 57 people dead.
Fifteen armed members of the Manobo tribe descended on the New Maasim Elementary School in Agusan del Sur province as children were attending a morning flag ceremony, the provincial police said in a statement.
Residents of nearby homes were also abducted, including a backhoe operator working on a government project nearby and two logging company employees, according to the statement.
Two school teachers escaped as the hostages were marched off to a forest, it added.
Negotiators led by a female social worker followed the group and got the gunmen to free all 17 students and the school principal, the statement said.
Police said this left 55 people, all adults, still in captivity.
The children arrived with the principal tired and hungry at the Prosperidad town hall by mid-afternoon and were immediately served meals after their eight-hour ordeal, an AFP reporter on the scene said.
Authorities said negotiations for the others still in captivity were expected to resume on Friday.
Police said the kidnappers were led by Ondo Perez, a local tribal leader, who had issued a raft of demands including the arrest of a local rival who he accused of being behind the murders of another member of the Perez family.
The kidnappers also want food, clothing, medicine, blankets and drinking water, police said, adding that negotiations were continuing.
Local police said some of the kidnap suspects were facing criminal charges in local courts, including murder, and had demanded those charges be dropped.
"They have many cases (against them), from murder to robbery," Prosperidad police chief Marco Archinue told AFP.
"They want the government to lift all arrest warrants against them. Police have been looking for them for a long time. We were supposed to serve warrants today, that\\\’s why they kidnapped those people."
Police said the negotiations were complicated by the fact that many of the hostages belonged to the rival Tubay family, which had engaged in bloody clashes with the Perez clan for the past few years.
The Mindanao region is an extremely volatile part of the Southeast Asian archipelago that makes up the southern third of the country.
Aside from communist fighters, Muslim rebels fighting for an independent homeland have waged an insurgency since the 1970s that has claimed more than 150,000 lives, according to the military.
Many other gangs with no affiliations to communists or Muslim rebels frequently engage in kidnappings for ransom and other crimes.
On Basilan island, which is about 450 kilometres to the southeast of the kidnap site, members of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group on Wednesday dumped in a park the severed head of one of three hostages they had taken on November 10.
The Abu Sayyaf, which specialises in kidnappings for ransom, had demanded 1.5 million pesos ($32,500) for the release of the trio, police said, adding a search was continuing on Thursday for the other two hostages.
Martial law was imposed in Maguindanao, another province on Mindanao, last week after a political massacre by the local ruling Muslim clan left 57 people dead.