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PROBERS STYMIED IN PHILIPPINE KIDNAPPING

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This impoverished mountain village was already asleep at 10 p.m. on June 13 when three youths with assault rifles went to the only house with an orange Frisbee on the porch and softly knocked on the door.

"We are the NPA," they said. "We want to talk to Tim."After 20 minutes of talk, the guerrillas from the Communist New People's Army ordered U.S. Peace Corps volunteer Timothy Swanson out the door and into the vast rugged mountains of northern Negros Island.

"He said, `I have no choice,' " said his Filipino bride, Merle, meeting reporters Tuesday. "Of course he left with tears in his eyes."

"They promised me they are going to return Tim in four days," she said, weeping openly. "But until now, nothing."

U.S. and Philippine investigators are stymied in their search for Swanson, a shy, lanky 26-year-old forester from Cheyenne, Wyo. They have heard his abductors are going to release him by the end of the month, but the kidnapping marks a new phase of anti-American terrorism in the Philippines.

"They've had him three weeks," one investigator said in frustration. "The trail is very cold. We may be in for a long haul."

Merle Swanson, a 31-year-old sixth-grade teacher, did not tell authorities that her husband was missing until a message arrived from Manila June 27 saying all Peace Corps volunteers were being evacuated from the Philippines because of NPA threats.

"They (the NPA) asked me not to tell anyone," she said, crying again and pounding her fist on the table. "Of course, I did not. I just care for his safety."

Although Swanson sent a letter to his wife June 19 asking for clothes and books, no one collected the bundle. It sits in their two-room, tin-roofed house, together with his dogeared copies of Newsweek, a battered Sony Walkman and a favorite John Denver tape.

Philippine officials say that they will not send military patrols to search for Swanson in the mist-shrouded mountains and dense jungle that they concede is largely controlled by the guerrillas. Army operations only made matters worse for Fumio Mizuno, a Japanese rural technician and longtime resident who was abducted by the NPA in a nearby village May 29 and has not been released.

"The result was the NPA took (Mizuno) further and further away, and made our search more difficult," said Daniel Lacson, governor of Negros Occidental province.

"Now we're shifting to a new tactic," he said. "We're waiting."

So far, six U.S. Embassy officials and three Peace Corps workers who know the area and the dialect, Ilongo, have joined the tense wait at the Garden Hotel in Bacolod, the provincial capital, about 300 miles south-southeast of Manila.

Officials say that military offensives farther south on Negros last year forced hundreds of NPA guerrillas into the hills around Patag, still honeycombed with Japanese bunkers and tunnels from World War II.

Army patrols destroyed NPA jungle camps three towns away in March, but the guerrillas quickly regrouped. They began to assert themselves again in May.

May 3, guerrillas abducted the Patag village captain, Pepito Valiente, from his home at gunpoint. He was marched blindfolded for a day and a night into the hills.

"I fainted, and my husband was terrified," said his wife, Magelinde.

When he was returned, Valiente told villagers that the rebels had interrogated him about the nursery and an irrigation project. They also asked about the quiet, curly-haired American.

But by then, Swanson already knew. May 4, NPA troops suddenly emerged from the jungle at his proj-ect site, a tree nursery outside the village where he cultivated neat rows of tiny seedlings in black plastic bags.

"They were very polite," his wife said. "They just asked about his work. But he told me he was quite afraid of these people."

According to his wife, his friends in Patag, and his diary, it was Swanson's first encounter with the NPA.

The NPA is the armed wing of the outlawed Philippine Communist Party, the rural-based insurgency that has left thousands dead since 1969. But as their numbers have fallen, they have targeted Americans to draw attention to their cause.

Eight Americans have been killed in incidents blamed on the guerrillas since April 1989. In May, they threatened to kill more Americans unless U.S. troops are withdrawn and six U.S. military facilities in the Philippines are closed. Swanson is the first American they have kidnapped.

As elsewhere on Negros, where the NPA controls up to one-third of the villages, the people in Patag are caught between the rebels and the military.

"There's NPA all over now," one farmer said nervously. "At night, when the dogs are barking, I open my window a little and see them on the street. So we close our eyes and say nothing."

Father Danilo Paderna, who married the Swansons at the San Diego Church in Silay City on May 29, says the villagers in his parish are "in-between."

"When the NPA passes through, they may go to your house and ask for food and decide to sleep there," he said. "Then the people are afraid. If the military knows, they will go after them."

Not surprisingly, Swanson stood out in Patag. After two years, he still bumped his head on the low doorways, and still drew crowds of giggling children. He was godfather to Elias Oyco Jr.'s three children, and godson to town counselor Felix Alpas.

"When we found Tim is gone, people are crying," said Alpas, 63. "He's a good man. He gives us seeds and fertilizer. He helps us."

"Everybody loved Tim," said Narry Dumagat, 52, who proudly showed Swanson's parents, brother and sister around when they flew in for the wedding and spent a night in the Pagat school. "He was good to the farmers."

Swanson, who attended the University of Chicago, asked the Peace Corps to extend his tour to a third year in Patag earlier this year.

"This is a quiet, well motivated, modest guy who believes he's doing good things," said one official who reviewed Swanson's Peace Corps file. "This is a guy who takes quiet satisfaction in getting five farmers to plant gardens. He takes modest pleasure in getting his village to try new seeds. And he felt he really needed one more year to round off the job in the right way."

For now, U.S. and Philippine officials can only speculate on why Swanson was snatched.

They cite four theories: The NPA is trying to embarrass President Corazon Aquino's government, trying to discourage foreign investment in Negros, trying to divert military operations or trying to "punish" Americans. None of them offers much hope for an early release.

His wife said that she is praying only that he is alive.