Philippine police launched a new anti-kidnapping force Tuesday to deal with a long-standing scourge by criminal gangs and militants that authorities say has been eased by crackdowns but anti-crime advocates continue to regard with alarm.
Kidnappings for ransom in the Philippines have been cited for spooking would-be investors and tourists. They also are blamed for allowing al-Qaida-linked groups such as the Abu Sayyaf, which is based in the country's restive south, to finance terrorist attacks and endure years of U.S.-backed military crackdowns that have severed their known ties with foreign donors.
In the latest case underscoring the problem's complexity, Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim ordered the arrest of 10 policemen who allegedly abducted four South Korean tourists and framed the victims with a false drugs offense to extort $30,000 from them.
A Korean man who allegedly connived with the policemen fled but has been arrested in South Korea.
The Philippines' national police chief, Director-General Nicanor Bartolome, said the new anti-kidnapping force would focus solely on the problem of abductions and replace the Police Anti-Crime and Emergency Response force, which for a decade dealt with hundreds of abduction cases, but also with high-profile killings and other crimes.
The new force will be manned by hundreds of hostage negotiators, crisis managers and operatives and receive a considerably larger budget than the former one, is expected to deal a stronger blow to the kidnapping menace, Bartolome said.
"The message is, we will hit you harder," police spokesman Agrimero Cruz said.
Since the previous police anti-kidnapping force's establishment in 2002, it dealt with 373 cases by ordinary criminal syndicates and hundreds of others staged by Muslim militant groups such has the Abu Sayyaf. Of the 373 kidnappings, the police agency solved 113, convicting 140 suspects and killing 164 others in assaults, officials said.
Police officials did not immediately provide statistics on past kidnappings by terrorist groups.
Senior Superintendent Isagani Nerez, commander of the outgoing and new anti-kidnapping force, said kidnappings for ransom have considerably eased over the years, with just 11 staged by criminal syndicates and 14 carried out by the Abu Sayyaf and other Muslim militant groups last year.
Nerez attributed the improvement to heavier police presence in hotspots and relentless assaults that broke up several syndicates, especially in the country's northern Luzon and central Visayan regions.
Prominent anti-crime advocate Teresita Ang-See acknowledged police successes in breaking up syndicates and reducing incidents but said kidnappings remain a serious concern.
"The kidnapping problem has been with us and is still with us," Ang-See said.
Cruz said the focus of a new crackdown would be kidnappings committed by the Abu Sayyaf and other groups that could help it plot terrorist attacks.
The Abu Sayyaf, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations, has been blamed for high-profile kidnappings of Filipinos and foreigners and is believed to be currently holding an Australian, Malaysian, Japanese and Indian national in their jungle hideouts in the south.
Desperate for funds, the Abu Sayyaf has targeted even poor people who struggle to pay ransom. The group carried out at least 11 kidnappings and raised about $704,000 in ransom in 2010, according to a confidential government report.
Associated Press writer Oliver Teves contributed to this report.