ZAMBOANGA, Philippines — The Philippines’ president urged national unity Wednesday to fight a group of Muslim rebels holding more than two dozen captives but admitted that carrying out her promise to crush them could mean a “long and bloody war.”
The Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, who embarrassed the country with a prolonged hostage crisis last year, claimed Tuesday they had killed one of three Americans they hold. While fearing the worst, officials expressed cautious optimism that Guillermo Sobero of Corona, might still be alive after a massive search failed to find his body by Wednesday night.
But the discovery of three other bodies – one a beheaded Muslim cleric who was reportedly on a private negotiation effort – emphasized the lethal nature of the group that killed two Filipino teachers last year as a “birthday present” to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s predecessor.
“The nation is faced with a serious and strong challenge from the bandits,” Arroyo told a nationally televised news conference. “Abu Sayyaf is a scourge to our race. They are a curse to their religion.” “We will meet fire with fire, and more. No ransom. No deal. No cease-fire. No suspension of the military operation. We will not stop the campaign until we have cleansed Basilan and Sulu of the Abu Sayyaf forces,” she said, referring to
the southern islands where the rebels
Arroyo also threatened punishment for people helping the rebels hide or resupply, and the military said it was receiving a large number of tips after the government offered $2 million in rewards for information leading to the capture of Abu Sayyaf leaders and their kidnapping henchmen.
Abu Sabaya, an Abu Sayyaf leader, claimed Sobero was beheaded on Tuesday as a “present” to the country on its 103rd anniversary of independence.
The group also holds two American missionaries and about 25 Filipinos.
Sobero’s brother, Alberto, said on CBS-TV’s “The Early Show” that the FBI had informed him the likelihood of foul play “is very high.” But he said the family is trying to remain optimistic.
“Even though the hopes are slim, we’re still clinging to that,” the brother said Wednesday. “How do you tell a 6-year-old his father’s head has been cut off?”
Several hundred military reinforcements joined thousands of troops to hunt the rebels on Basilan. More were to arrive soon.
The military has advised caution about Sabaya’s execution claim, pointing out that he has lied before and made threats he has not carried out. “We believe that is still part of Sabaya’s bluff,” military spokesman Col. Danilo Servando said.
The three bodies, including the cleric’s, were found near where rebels seized 15 people from a plantation Monday, Servando said. The identity of the other two bodies was not clear, but officials said they were not any of the hostages.
Joel Maturan, mayor of the central Basilan town of Tipo Tipo, said the cleric and three other negotiators – who National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said were not working for the government – tried to approach the rebels. Three fled when Sabaya grew angry.
Maturan told ABS-CBN television that Sabaya ordered his men to tie up the cleric in the form of a cross.
They “immediately chopped off his head,” Maturan said. “Sabaya ordered the beheading of the priest on suspicion that he was spying for the military.”
On May 27, the rebels raided the Dos Palmas resort in the southwestern Philippines, taking 20 people hostage, including Sobero and Martin and Gracia Burnham, a missionary couple from Wichita, Kan. Nine captives later escaped, and two resort staff members were found hacked to death.
In subsequent attacks, the Abu Sayyaf took more hostages in a hospital and a plantation on Basilan.
Abu Sayyaf says it wants a southern Islamic state, but the government calls the rebels bandits. Though Muslims are a minority in the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines, they form a majority in the southern islands where the Abu Sayyaf operates.