ZAMBOANGA, Philippines — Muslim rebels claimed Tuesday that they killed an American hostage, one of more than two dozen captives they’re holding in the southern Philippine jungles. The military was skeptical of the report.
Abu Sabaya, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf rebels, said over Radio Mindanao Network that his group had beheaded Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif.
Sabaya threatened to execute one of the three Americans he holds at noon Monday, but delayed it when the Philippine government agreed to one of his demands, that a Malaysian negotiator be brought in to help settle the crisis.
But Sabaya said the threat was carried out because he felt the government was insincere. “We could see that they were fooling us around,” he said in the RMN broadcast.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan stressed the claim hadn’t been confirmed.
“We have to verify this information and confirm, because you know, in the past Sabaya has said things like this and didn’t mean it,” Adan said.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Susan Pittman said officials were seeking information. “We are looking into the reports.”
Sobero’s younger brother, Alberto, said U.S. officials also told him that the report was unverified.
“I’m still hoping this is not true,” the Cathedral City resident said. “I ask the Philippine government to exhaust all efforts and continue a dialogue to get my brother back, and all the hostages.”
He added that only oldest of Guillermo Sobero’s four children, a 13-year-old daughter, knows that their father has been kidnapped.
Last year, the rebels seized several hostages and executed some Filipinos, but this was the first time they claimed to have killed a foreigner.
In his radio comments, Sabaya also threatened to kill other hostages. His group holds at least 25 Filipinos and to other Americans, Wichita, Kan.-based missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham.
“We chopped the head of Guillermo Sobero,” Sabaya told RMN. “They better hurry the rescue, otherwise there will be no hostages left.”
He said the killing occurred near the town of Tuburan and told the military: “Find his body.”
Sabaya demanded that former Malaysian Sen. Sairin Karno join the negotiating team. Karno helped mediate last year’s kidnapping crisis, where millions of dollars in ransoms were reportedly paid to bring it to an end.
The military has said no ransom will be paid this time. The rebels used the money last year to buy arms and speedboats used in the May 27 abduction of tourists, including the Americans, from a beach resort across the Sulu Sea.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has ordered all-out war against the Abu Sayyaf.
Meanwhile, three Abu Sayyaf rebels were killed and three soldiers wounded in fighting Tuesday, said Col. Danilo Servando, spokesman for the military’s southern forces. He said the clash was near Lantawan town, the area where the hostages are reportedly held.
A day earlier, the rebels stormed a coconut and coffee plantation on southern Basilan island, burning down five houses and a chapel, then fled with 15 more hostages to go with the 13 people were already holding, the army said. Among the new hostages are two 12-year-olds.
Sabaya said Monday’s attack on the plantation was part of a counteroffensive against the military. He claimed he sent out teams of fighters Monday to “create another problem” after reinforcements arrived from the guerrillas’ base on nearby Jolo island.
The government has estimated the Abu Sayyaf has about 1,100 fighters in the southern islands. The military, citing intelligence reports, said about 20 Abu Sayyaf reinforcements had landed on Basilan.
The Abu Sayyaf says it is fighting to carve out an independent Islamic state from the southern Philippines, but the government calls its members mere bandits. Muslims are a minority in the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines but are a majority in the islands where the Abu Sayyaf operates.
This is the same group that kidnapped Oakland resident Jeffrey Schilling in August 2000. Schilling returned home unharmed in April.