Top Abu Sayyaf Leader Believed Dead
Jun. 21, 2002
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ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) _ A top Abu Sayyaf leader linked to the kidnappings of Kansas missionaries and scores of other people was believed killed in a firefight with U.S.-trained troops Friday, military sources said.
Abu Sabaya was the most visible of the Muslim extremist group's commanders, often calling up local media with demands and statements taunting the government. The military said it had been hot on his trail after a June 7 rescue of Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan. Martin Burnam and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap were killed and Gracia Burnham was wounded but freed.
Military sources, quoting soldiers and rebel survivors, said a marine and special warfare amphibious group patrolling off Mantibu Point on the main southern island of Mindanao intercepted a boat with armed men around 4:15 a.m. The troops came under fire and shot back.
The five-minute exchange left three suspected Abu Sayyaf rebels dead and four others captured. A body believed to be that of Sabaya was recovered, the sources said, and officials were trying to confirm the identity.
The U.S. State Department recently offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Sabaya's capture.
Maj. Richard Sater, a spokesman for U.S. forces conducting a counterterrorism training exercise aimed at helping local troops wipe out the Abu Sayyaf, said he had heard news reports of Sabaya's possible death. ``We are encouraged. It is a step forward in the war against terrorism.''
He said Americans provided unspecified support during the clash but were not directly involved in the fighting.
Troops said they had found Sabaya's trademark sunglasses and backpack at the site of the June 7 clash in the dense jungle of Zamboanga del Norte province on Mindanao island. Friday's gun battle occurred nearby, and military sources speculated the rebels may have been trying to flee the island.
The Abu Sayyaf, with its roots in the region's Muslim separatist movement and reported early support from the al-Qaida terrorist network, had steadily moved toward becoming a bandit gang, thriving on kidnapping-for-ransom and killing captives whose families couldn't afford to pay.
Freed hostages have talked about how Sabaya led a pre-dawn raid on an upscale resort on May 27, 2001, in which a band of the guerrillas snatched 20 hostages without firing a shot. Included were the Burnhams and Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif.
Using speedboats purchased with ransoms from another mass abduction a year earlier, the guerrillas transported the hostages across the Sulu Sea to Basilan island.
The military launched a massive search that eventually would lead to an ongoing six-month deployment of 1,000 American troops to provide training and high-tech support to the badly undertrained and underequipped Philippine troops.
Sabaya, expressing anger over the government's refusal to bring in outside negotiators, threatened last June to kill Sobero. Days later, claiming a government double-cross, he called a local radio station to say he had beheaded the Peruvian-American.
In a chilling voice, Sabaya announced: ``We have released Sobero. But we released him without his head.'' Months later, Sobero's remains were found scattered in the jungle.
Using hostages as human shields, the Abu Sayyaf snatched a total of 102 people over several months. Some were killed; others escaped and the rest were freed, reportedly for large ransoms.