US Hostages Alive, More Philippine Troops Sent to Crush Abu Sayyaf
An American couple and 16 other hostages held by Abu Sayyaf gunmen are still alive in the jungles of Basilan island in the southern Philippines, the military said Thursday.
Intelligence reports indicate that the Muslim rebels are holding Christian missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham and 16 Filipinos in Tuburan, a jungle-clad town in Basilan, armed forces spokesman Edilberto Adan told reporters.
"What we can say is that they're alive and still in the Tuburan area," Brigadier General Adan told reporters.
But he said the hostages' health could be deteriorating in Basilan's rugged terrain, where malaria is endemic and drinking water is hard to come by.
"They are being given simple food and eat what the terrorists eat, and it's possible that their health is being affected."
Adan said 1,000 troops have been sent to Basilan to augment 5,000 working to rescue the captives and crush the Abu Sayyaf, a rag-tag group of self-styled Islamic fighters believed to have once received aid from international terror suspect Osama bin Laden.
"We have just added two battalions in Basilan, so that the probability of contact will be increased," Adan said.
The Burnhams were among 20 people seized by the Abu Sayyaf from a Philippine beach resort on May 27. A third American, Guillermo Sobero of California, is believed to have been executed.
The couple's friends and family on Wednesday renewed appeals for the rebels to release the hostages to mark Martin Burnham's 42nd birthday.
The rebels in June seized more Filipino captives as they escaped from a military assault in a Basilan town. They have beheaded at least a dozen Filipino captives so far.
Security officials say the Abu Sayyaf in the mid-1980s to early 1990s received funds from bin Laden, now wanted "dead or alive" by the US government for last week's deadly attacks in New York and Washington.
The Saudi millionaire, however, later cut off links after the Abu Sayyaf degenerated into a kidnap-for-ransom gang, according to presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao.
The armed forces have vowed to crush the rebels and rescue all the hostages by November, although Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes conceded Thursday that the task was proving to be "difficult."
"The ones we are hunting were born there, they have many relatives and friends. People are afraid that if they do not help the Abu Sayyaf, the rebels will get back at them," Reyes said over DZMM radio -- MANILA (AFP)
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