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Philippine island’s schools shut amid kidnap fears

ZAMBOANGA, December 2, 2010 (AFP) – The Philippine government Thursday suspended classes at 11 primary and secondary schools on a southern island, two weeks after gunmen seized a principal in the strife-torn region.

The suspension was ordered amid fears that more teachers on Basilan island’s Lamitan town would be attacked, regional police head Chief Superintendent Bienvenido Latag said.

“Classes in these 11 schools would hopefully resume on Monday,” Latag said, as he vowed to provide more protection for the teachers.

Last week, gunmen abducted principal Cecilia Sosas and a teacher from their school in Lamitan, though the teacher was soon released.

In Manila, Education Secretary Armin Luistro said teachers were temporarily pulled out from the 11 schools in Lamitan after threats were received that they would also be kidnapped.

“Teachers should be spared from any form of violence so that they can perform their duty without fearing for their lives,” Luistro told reporters.

“If this goes on, students and the community will be deprived of a chance to a better future because no teachers would want to be deployed in their area due to security issues.”

Luistro said the fate of Sosas remained unknown, with no group taking responsibility for the attack.

Teachers have been increasingly under attack in Basilan, with at least six seized in the past two years. They were later freed in batches after ransom payments were made.

The Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group and a range of armed gangs are known to operate on Basilan, a remote and predominantly Muslim island mired in poverty.

The Abu Sayyaf has in the past kidnapped teachers, foreign missionaries and businessmen on Basilan and other parts of the southern Philippines’ restive Mindanao region.

In 2000, Abu Sayyaf rebels raided a Catholic school on Basilan, and kidnapped 50 students and teachers. A military assault freed most of the captives, but not before four were executed by the gunmen.

Revenge attacks between warring Muslim clans are also common in Mindanao, and a proliferation of unlicensed firearms worsens the situation.

In another kidnapping incident on Basilan, gunmen seized 12 fishermen over the weekend in an incident police said was linked to clan rivalry. Ten fishermen were quickly released but two remain in captivity.

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