MANILA, Philippines — President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered “all-out war” on a band of Muslim extremists Monday, hours after they vowed to behead a U.S. hostage to mark the president’s 54th birthday.
“We will pursue every one of them relentlessly,” Arroyo said of the Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines. “We shall annihilate them. We will never, ever negotiate with them.”
The attack order comes as Arroyo prepares for peace talks with communist rebels of the New People’s Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a larger Muslim rebel group.
Hours before Arroyo’s announcement, Abu Sabaya, an Abu Sayyaf leader, told the local Radio Mindanao Network that his men will kill Jeffrey Schilling on Thursday evening, the president’s birthday.
Abu Sayyaf beheaded two Filipino hostages last year, on April 19, as a “birthday gift” to then-President Joseph Estrada as he turned 63.
The Abu Sayyaf has set, and missed, several self-imposed deadlines to kill Schilling, a 25-year-old resident of Oakland in recent months. Schilling has been held captive since August.
Sabaya tried to convince authorities Monday that he is serious this time. “We are not joking,” he said. “You better inform his mother in the U.S. about his execution so she may talk for the last time to her son.”
In an e-mail message, Schilling’s mother, Carol Schilling, appealed to the rebel leader “to spare my son. He has already suffered tremendously at your hands. There is nothing to be gained from harming Jeffrey.”
In contrast to her conciliatory statement to other insurgents, Arroyo said Monday that any Abu Sayyaf member who voluntarily surrenders will face charges anyway. The government has offered amnesty in the past to surrendered members of other armed groups.
“They are a money-crazed gang of criminals,” Arroyo said. “They have no ideology.”
Arroyo said she talked to U.S. officials in the Philippines before ordering the assault and they backed the action.
Military Chief of Staff Diomedio Villanueva said Monday the Abu Sayyaf has 1,200 armed members.
Abu Sayyaf, which says it is fighting for a Muslim homeland, operates mainly on the island of Jolo, about 580 miles south of Manila.
Estrada ordered a mass assault last September, using the navy to blockade Jolo while artillery and bomber airplanes pummeled the island to make way for mass infantry attacks. Some 80,000 civilians were displaced and the military said it killed more than 150 rebels. Sporadic clashes have continued since Estrada’s one-month assault.
Arroyo’s administration is scheduled to start peace talks April 27 with communist rebels of the New People’s Army, which is fighting nationwide to overthrow the government. Arroyo said her government will also start peace talks with the MILF, fighting for an independent Muslim state in the southern region of Mindanao, within three months.
Abu Sayyaf, the smallest of the three major insurgency groups, shot to international renown last year after seizing dozens of hostages, many of them foreigners, in daring raids.
It released all but two hostages — Schilling and Filipino dive resort worker Roland Ullah, for reported multimillion dollar ransoms.
In his latest comment, Sabaya said the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the Philippines, Al Ghamby, could save Schilling’s life if he visits the rebels before Thursday.
He did not say why he wanted to speak to Ghamby. The embassy wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Military officials have been puzzled by Schilling’s relations with the Abu Sayyaf.
Schilling, a Muslim convert, was taken by the rebels after he visited their camp in Jolo on Aug. 31. Schilling was accompanied by girlfriend Ivy Osani, Sabaya’s cousin. Osani was freed after the rebels seized Schilling.