Filipino gangs have gained notoriety for their high-profile abductions,
December 10, 2011 Lindsay Murdoch writes
The lights went out in the sleepy southern Philippine village of Pangi, on the outskirts of Ipil, as darkness fell. Australian adventurer and writer Warren Rodwell had returned home earlier in the day to check on workmen painting inside the house he had bought in the village in October.
Two weeks earlier, Miraflor Gutang, 27, whom he had married in June, had returned to her family’s home in another village after the couple had argued.
The painters had left Mr Rodwell’s house by the time four strangers walked into the village moments after a power outage and introduced themselves to villagers as policemen. One of the men, who were not masked, told villagers not to be afraid, but they were.
Mr Rodwell, 53, was probably preparing dinner in the tiny kitchen of the house when the men entered. The front gate and door may have been open as the house is protected by barbed wire and heavy bars. Mr Rodwell was taken off guard: his loaded handgun was under the pillow in his bedroom.
Tall and strong, the tattooed Australian was not going anywhere without a fight and struggled violently with the men. Neighbours heard a gunshot and Mr Rodwell’s screams for help. Police believe he was shot in the foot during the scuffle. They found a trail of blood from one of his thongs near the front door.
Neighbour Joel Bulay, 44, and his wife Rosanna, 41, saw Mr Rodwell being dragged from the house. Mr Bulay said two of the men held Mr Rodwell tightly by the arms. Another man armed with a pistol pushed him to walk faster from behind as another pulled him from the front by handcuffs. Ms Bulay said Mr Rodwell could hardly walk due to the pain as he was dragged past her house.
”He did not say anything and we are not sure that he saw us,” she said. The group disappeared into the darkness through bushes that lead to a river and the open sea. ”I was really scared, so scared that I was trembling and could do nothing because we feared for our own safety,” Mr Bulay said. ”One of my girls, who is five years old, suspected it was a kidnapping and I told her to keep quiet because we were scared the gunmen would take us and use our family as a shield in their escape.”
The villagers have reason to be scared. In April 1995, militants from the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf attacked and pillaged the seaside town of Ipil, 130 kilometres from the provincial capital Zamboanga City. Fifty-three people were left dead.
In September, the same group kidnapped Luisa Morrison, the Filipino wife of a Scotsman, from her beauty salon in Ipil. The militants took her to their stronghold on Basilan Island, four hours away by speedboat. She was rescued a week later during a fierce battle with Philippine security forces in which one soldier was killed.
Grave fears are held for Mr Rodwell, who after leaving Sydney a decade ago travelled frequently in developing countries and worked for more than eight years as an English teacher in China.
Philippine security forces have stepped up their hunt for Abu Sayyaf militants who have been blamed for the kidnapping of numerous foreigners and wealthy Filipinos, some of whom have been beheaded if ransoms have not been paid.
Authorities have not ruled out that elements of other Muslim groups or criminal gangs involved in the region’s lucrative kidnapping-for-ransom industry are behind the incident.
Mr Rodwell knew the area where he was living was dangerous but had refused police protection in June, saying he could look after himself. The Philippine media has reported he is a former Australian soldier. On several websites Mr Rodwell, whose former wife and three adult children live in Western Australia, describes himself as a full-time expatriate. On one posting he wrote that true wealth is best measured in terms of inner peace and happiness, not material things.
”Accepting your own mortality is also most useful, especially if you don’t have financial or family responsibilities back in your place or origin,” he wrote. By all accounts Mr Rodwell was happy with village life, running a store in Ipil with Ms Gutang, also known as Grace, who he reportedly met on the internet.
However, neighbours said that he was not particularly friendly and he had chased some people away from his house. ”He is really strict and perceived as arrogant,” Mr Bulay said. A sign at the house warns about trespassing. Merly Suan, 18, another resident of the village, described Mr Rodwell as a silent man who went about his daily business alone. ”He sometimes smiles at me if I see him on his motor bike … I think he is a good man and we pity him,” she said. ”We pray for his safety.”
The Australian government’s handling of the incident will be a test of the recommendations of the Senate inquiry into the kidnappings of Australians overseas, which were made public last month. The government has established a multi-agency group that includes federal police, diplomats and intelligence agents. When Australian officials arrived in Zamboanga City, one of the first things they did was to ask Philippine authorities to impose a news blackout on the hunt for the kidnappers.
with Al Jacinto in Ipil