A top leader of the Abu Sayyaf Muslim Islamic militant group is believed to have been killed Friday morning in a clash with government troops in the southern Philippines. The Philippines government said that it was currently attempting to verify reports from soldiers involved in the clash that one of the men killed was Abu Sabaya, the leader of the kidnapping cell that had taken three Americans hostage last year.
Militant leader killed attempting to elude troops at sea
The clash occurred at 4:20 in the morning on Friday, when Philippines troops spotted a motorized dinghy of the coast of Subuco town in the southern Zamboanga del Norte region. Troops said that they saw several armed men in the dinghy, and were moving in closer to investigate, when their patrol boat came under fire from the gunmen.
The soldiers rammed the dinghy with their speedboat, causing some of the militants to drop their weapons, while others jumped overboard and began swimming for shore. Four Abu Sayyaf militants captured after the brief clash confirmed that Abu Sabaya had jumped overboard and been shot.
Although Abu Sabaya's body was not immediately found, Philippines southern military commander Maj. Gen. Ernesto Carolina said that he had no doubts that the rebel leader was dead. He said that one of the soldiers had fired from only three meters at the man believed to be Abu Sabaya. The soldier "positively, categorically said he was sure that he hit Sabaya in the back and he saw his body sink in the water," Carolina said.
Kidnapper leader frequent "guest" on local radio stations
Abu Sabaya, whose real name is Aldam Tilao, was a prominent spokesman for Abu Sayyaf, and was well known to radio stations in the southern Philippines, where he would call in to threaten terror attacks or defy the government to come after him. For more than two years, he led one of the Abu Sayyaf's most active kidnapping squads, succeeding in eluding government troops time and again.
Abu Sabaya's cell first burst into international headlines on April 23, 2000, when they raided a resort off the coast of Indonesia, making off with 21 hostages, including many foreigners. The hostages were released after enormous ransoms, believed to have totaled some $20 million, were paid by Libyan leader Muamar Qaddafi. The Libyan ransom money was used by the rebels to recruit followers from among the impoverished Muslim communities in the southern Philippines and to buy arms and equipment to continue their kidnapping campaign.
On May 27, 2001, Abu Sabaya struck again, raiding the Dos Palmas Resort in Palawan. This time, three Americans--a missionary couple from Kansas and a California man--were among the captives. Guillermo Sobero was beheaded by the bandits late last year.
Two weeks ago, Philippines troops finally managed to catch up with the kidnappers in the dense jungles on Zamboanga peninsula. U.S. missionary Martin Burnham and Filipina nurse Deborah Yap were killed in the gunfight that followed. Burnham's wife, Gracie, suffered a leg wound but was rescued.
The U.S. government has offered up to $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of five Abu Sayyaf commanders, including Abu Sabaya.
Crackdown on Abu Sayyaf paying off
Following the June 7 encounter, the survivors of Abu Sabaya's band had managed to stay just one step of government troops, who hurriedly moved to block possible avenues of escape from the peninsula. Friday's interception was the fruit of a painstaking campaign, during which Philippines ground forces and navy attempted to lure the beseiged guerillas into making their escape from a well-patrolled strip of coastline.
Philippines president Gloria Arroyo congratulated the armed forces on the successful outcome of the encounter. "Terrorists will be hunted down relentlessly wherever they are, in the vastness of the jungle or in the high seas. They will be given no room to maneuver, to hide, or to rest. We will not stop until they are all accounted for," she said.
In an ironic twist, a Philippines navy source said that the three-engine speedboat used by the naval patrol to intercept the Abu Sayyaf dinghy was the same boat that Abu Sabaya had used to seize American hostages in Palawan more than a year ago. The speedboat was recovered by the navy last year in Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi, after the rebels left it behind on their journey to Basilan.
Sources: Associated Press, Manila Times, Philippines Daily Inquirer