Philippine rebel challenge to US

The Abu Sayyaf claimed for the first time to have killed a foreigner - a Peruvian-born American.

A mass kidnapping in the southern Philippines took a gruesome turn on Tuesday, with claims by the hostage-takers that they have beheaded one of three Americans they are holding captive.

The man allegedly killed was named as Guillermo Sobero, from Corona, Calif. He was among 20 people - including two American missionaries - snatched from a tourist resort on May 27 by gunmen belonging to the Muslim Abu Sayyaf rebel group.

The current crisis bears close similarities with another mass kidnapping last year, in which Abu Sayyaf gunmen seized 21 foreigners and Filipinos from a luxury diving resort in Malaysia. The captives were eventually freed months later, after the payment of an estimated $25 million in ransom.

It also adds to the reputation of the Abu Sayyaf, an extremist group who claim to be fighting for an independent homeland for the local minority Muslim population, but whose prime activities have become banditry and kidnapping.

Like better-known Muslim radicals, Osama Bin Laden and Ramzi Ahmed Yussef (author of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), the Abu Sayyaf founder, Abdurajak Janjalani, honed his guerrilla skills with the mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan. In 1991, the Abu Sayyaf first grabbed headlines when it claimed the killing of two American evangelists in a grenade attack in Zamboanga, the main town closest to the southern island of Basilan, where the Abu Sayyaf bandits have been on the run with captives since last week. Over the years, members of the group have carried out a series of kidnappings, massacres, and extortion operations.

Since Mr. Janjalani's death at the hands of the military in 1998, Abu Sayyaf has splintered into rival factions, making it still harder for the Manila government to contain their activities in an endemically lawless region of the country. While repudiated by larger Philippine rebel groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Abu Sayyaf are, like the MILF, products of the conflict, repression, and economic stagnation that has blighted the southern Philippines for four centuries.

A spokesman for the kidnappers, Abu Sabaya, told a local radio station that Mr. Sobero had been executed "as a gift" to the government as it celebrated the 103rd anniversary of its independence from Spain. "The military had better hurry up with their rescue," Mr. Sabaya told the RMN radio station in Zamboanga. "Otherwise they may not recover anyone alive."

Military officials have not confirmed that Sobero's body has been found, saying the kidnappers' claim could be a hoax. It would be the first time the Abu Sayyaf has killed a foreigner. In April, Jeffrey Schilling, a Muslim convert from California held by the Abu Sayyaf, was rescued after almost eight months in captivity. Officials point out that the Abu Sayyaf has recently killed two of their Filipino hostages, one of whom was decapitated.

A statement issued by the US Embassy in Manila condemned the reported execution. "We hold the Abu Sayyaf group responsible for the safety and welfare of all the people it is holding." Similar sentiments were expressed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. "The reported murder of Mr. Sobero," she said, "only strengthens our resolve to decimate once and for all this cold-blooded bandit group."

Officials in Manila stressed that despite the US tourist's possible murder, military operations against the Abu Sayyaf would continue, and that the government's refusal to pay ransom also stood unchanged. Troops have been combing the jungles of Basilan for days. At one point last week, troops had the kidnappers and their captives trapped in a hospital. The Abu Sayyaf seized four additional hostages at that hospital last week and 15 more hostages from a plantation on Monday.

Mrs. Arroyo's government is due to resume peace talks with the MILF later this month. She has made resolving the problems of Mindanao and other islands with a large Muslim population a top priority of her administration.

Regionally, these headline-making "kidnappings are still largely limited to the Philippines," says John Bresnan, a scholar of the East Asian Institute at Columbia University in New York." But now "the government is under the gun - foreigners are included in the crisis."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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