Former Hostage Leaves Philippines

MANILA, Philippines –– Former hostage Gracia Burnham left the Philippines on Monday to reunite with her children in America, offering her gratitude before she departed to the U.S. and Philippine soldiers who risked their lives to rescue her and her husband.

Sometimes smiling and once near tears, Burnham demanded her Muslim separatist captors be brought to justice for the kidnapping that left her husband dead. The couple was kidnapped in May 2001.

"We needed every single prayer you said for us during our ordeal in the jungle," the 43-year-old said in a brief statement she read at the airport Monday. She was in a wheelchair with a gunshot wound to her right thigh. "We especially want to thank the military men, the Americans, the Filipinos who risked and even gave their lives to rescue us."

Burnham was rescued Friday when Philippine soldiers ambushed her kidnappers, members of the Muslim extremist Abu Sayyaf group. Her husband, Martin, and Filipino hostage Ediborah Yap were killed in the two-hour shootout.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Saturday the Philippine air force and army will unleash their full arsenal now that the rebels have no more hostages.

More than 200 soldiers arrived Monday to reinforce the offensive. The soldiers are the first of up to 1,800 additional troops to be deployed in three southern islands, officials said.

Burnham, who suffered a year of poor diet and frequent shootouts in the jungles of the southern Philippines, said her captors "should be treated as common criminals. We support all efforts of the government in bringing these men to justice."

Without elaborating, she said the rebels "repeatedly lied to" the couple from Wichita, Kan. The guerrillas reneged on several promises to release the hostages.

"I return to the States this morning, to rejoin my children and to put my life back together," she said, fighting back tears. "Part of my heart will always stay with the Filipino people. Thank you."

Her three children are Jeff, 15, Mindy, 12, and Zach, 11.

The body of Martin Burnham, who was 42, has been flown to a U.S. military base in Japan and would return to America in "a few days," U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone told reporters.

At a prayer service in Kansas on Sunday, parishioners and family sang hymns. A minister told the congregation that Martin "was doing God's will to the end" before he was killed.

The Burnhams had been working as missionaries in the Philippines for 15 years when they were abducted on May 27 last year from a resort island where they were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary.

The Philippine army launched the rescue Friday after U.S. troops, who are training Filipino soldiers to fight the Abu Sayyaf, used surveillance technology to help pinpoint the captors. The rebel group is suspected to have links to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

"No one should try to suggest this was bungled or botched in any way," Ricciardone said. Washington had no plans to formally investigate the rescue mission, mounted in difficult conditions of dense jungle and pouring rain, he said.

The ambassador would not say if he knew whether bullets fired by rebels or Philippine forces killed the missionary.

A brother of the Filipino hostage met with Gracia Burnham on Sunday and said the missionary told him that when the shooting started, she fell from a hammock with a gunshot wound and rolled down a slope before stopping her fall by grabbing a small tree branch.

She sobbed as she recounted how her husband Martin lay nearby, bleeding from the chest. She knew she had lost him, the brother, David Pamaran, said.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Frank Jenista said that Burnham told U.S. officials that the campaign to snuff out the rebel group was working. When they were kidnapped, about 100 rebels were in the group that held them. But during the past year, it dwindled to 14 men with 10 firearms, Jenista quoted her as saying.

Burnham gave U.S. and Philippine officials new information about personalities in the Abu Sayyaf and how the group works, Ricciardone said.

Despite the Abu Sayyaf's alleged links to al-Qaida, the ambassador said Burnham told officials that she did not see any foreigners working with her captors.

The body of Yap, a 45-year-old Filipino nurse taken hostage days after the Burnhams to treat the guerrillas' wounded, arrived in her small hometown of Lamitan Sunday, on the southern island of Basilan, an Abu Sayyaf base.

The group says it wants to create a Muslim state in the southern Philippines.