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Armed separatists must release schoolChildren's rights and civilians in Basilan

'We appeal to the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf group not to use innocent Children's rights and other civilians as pawns in their month long stand-off with the government. The taking and killing of hostages is a grave human rights abuse,' Amnesty International said.

On 20 March, the Abu Sayyaf group raided two schools on the southern island of Basilan, off Mindanao, abducting around 50 schoolChildren's rights, teachers and a priest. About 20 of the hostages, including two sick Children's rights, were later released but the others have now been in captivity for a whole month.

'All sides to the conflict in Mindanao, both opposition groups and armed forces, have been responsible for violating international human rights and humanitarian law. By holding civilians hostage under threat of death, members of this armed group are committing one more brutal act in an apparently escalating spiral of violence in the region,' the organisation said.

The Abu Sayyaf group have threatened to kill more people unless the Philippine Government takes steps towards meeting their political demands. These include calls for the release of three members of Islamic opposition groups imprisoned in the USA, one of whom was convicted of the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993. Other demands relate to the release of local prisoners and the use of Islamic education in schools.

Amnesty International calls on all parties involved in the armed conflict to observe minimum standards of humane behaviour. Acknowledging and addressing human rights abuses by all those involved in the conflict in Mindanao is essential as a first step towards peace and reconciliation.

Background Political tensions in the southern island of Mindanao, continuing since the 1970s, have heightened recently. Thousands of civilians have fled their homes as armed conflict has escalated. Peace talks between the government and the largest armed Islamic separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), have continued to falter, amid hostilities on both sides. The Abu Sayyaf, a smaller armed group also fighting for a separate Islamic state and engaged in kidnappings for ransom, is believed to have several hundred members. In recent years, all armed opposition groups and other vigilante groups in Mindanao have been responsible for human rights abuses, including hostage-taking and killings. The Philippine armed forces have also committed human rights violations in the context of counter-insurgency operations, including extrajudicial executions, torture, 'disappearances' and indiscriminate killings of civilians.

The Philippine Government has responded to the recent escalation in violence by mobilizing a larger contingency of armed forces in the region and announcing plans to expand the number of militia groups, including the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGUs). Such militia groups were notorious for committing widespread human rights violations during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Amnesty International condemns abuses committed by armed opposition groups, its stand however does not carry a connotation of recognition, or condemnation or that group, nor does it constitute a comment on the legitimacy of its goals or political program.

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