Military clashes with kidnappers on southern island |

Military clashes with kidnappers on southern island

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) – Muslim extremists holding 20 hostages – including three Americans – clashed with the military in the southern Philippines early Friday, military officials and guerrillas said.

Rebel leader Abu Sabaya phoned a local radio station to say his group was under attack. He repeated a threat to kill the hostages. Near and distant gunfire rang out as he spoke breathlessly to RMN radio station.

Sabaya, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf group, claimed two hostages had been hit by gunfire.

He said the clash started when his men allowed a group of hostages to take a bath in a river. He said advancing troops found them and started firing.

”The soldiers thought they were rebels like us,” Sabaya said of the hostages. Refusing to identify who was hit, he raised an ominous possibility: ”Maybe we will stage an execution. Welcome to the party.”

Col. Jovenal Narcise, leader of an army battalion on southern Basilan island, confirmed the fighting but did not say whether the military had spotted the hostages.

Sabaya said that in addition to the 20 hostages taken Sunday from the Dos Palmas beach resort in the southwestern Philippines, his group also had seized 10 fisherman.

On Thursday, the military threw 5,000 troops into a search for the rebels and their hostages.

With the Philippine president vowing to crush the rebels, Brig. Gen. Romeo Dominguez said his troops were on a ”rescue and destroy” mission.

”We just need one initial positive contact and we will get them,” Dominguez said Thursday. ”If they are found, the shooting will start.”

The military blockaded a 60-mile-wide stretch of ocean after local radio quoted residents as saying they saw the hostages Wednesday night in a boat lined with grenades strung together. The Abu Sayyaf warned Tuesday, in its last public contact, that it will kill the captives IF the military tries to rescue them.

A military spokesman said the United States has offered to help in the search that has proved so difficult, with troops chasing the trail among the islands strewn across the Philippines’ southern Sulu Sea.

Soldiers showered open-air markets and village squares near Abu Sayyaf bases with wanted posters Thursday, advertising $2 million in rewards. Air force Col. Jose Mendoza said pilots also will airdrop thousands of posters to remote corners of southern islands.

Unconfirmed reports put at least some of the hostages on at least three islands. When the military went to check, it found nothing.

Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan said the abductors will try to slip from island to island in their home waters, using stealth, new equipment and support of some sympathetic residents.

”We will chase them to wherever they will go,” Adan said.

He said the blockade was aimed at preventing access to southern islands where the Abu Sayyaf operates, especially Jolo, where the group has its main bases.

Adan said the U.S. government offered to help the Philippines search for the 20 hostages.

”We don’t need combat troops here,” Adan said. ”What is needed here is information.” He noted that the area where the Abu Sayyaf operates is scattered with more than 60 islands.

The U.S. Embassy issued said it remains in close contact with the Philippine government because three Americans are among the hostages. ”All of the hostages should be released immediately, safely and unconditionally,” the statement said.

Abu Sayyaf gunmen seized the tourists from the Dos Palmas resort off Palawan Island, on the western edge of the Sulu Sea. Jolo and Basilan islands lie at the sea’s southeast corner, 350 miles away.

The Abu Sayyaf, which claims to be fighting for a separate Muslim state, seized 10 foreign tourists about a year ago from a Malaysian resort. Most were released for millions of dollars in ransom.

AP-WS-05-31-01 2116EDT

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