Philippines Says Rebel Execution Claim a Bluff

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                   [American hostage, Guillermo
                    Sobero, more in photo caption
                    below].

Philippines Says Rebel Execution Claim a Bluff

ISABELA, Philippines (Reuters) - Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pledged no let-up in military action against Muslim rebels on Wednesday as military leaders dismissed as a bluff their claim to have beheaded a U.S. hostage.
Troops and the Abu Sayyaf rebels fought a brief gunbattle near Tipo-Tipo town on the southern island of Basilan early on Wednesday, one day after two bodies were found in the area.
But officials identified both bodies as those of local men and not of Guillermo Sobero, one of three Americans seized in May whose execution the rebels announced on Tuesday.
``The Abu Sayyaf is a plague on our race, a curse to their religion,'' Arroyo, an admirer of Britain's ``Iron Lady'' Margaret Thatcher, told a news conference.
``They live by the draconian code of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We have responded in kind, we will continue to meet fire with fire and more.''
As troops combed Basilan for the rebels and more than two dozen U.S. and Filipino hostages, Arroyo warned residents on the island against helping the rebels.
Toughening the government stance, she said that there would be no negotiations with the rebels through a Malaysian negotiator, as the government had agreed on Sunday following earlier threats to execute the three American hostages.
Asked about such talks, she replied: ``That's academic, because Abu Sabaya already said no more negotiations.''
Military spokesmen dismissed or played down Tuesday's execution announcement by Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Sabaya.
``There is no truth to what Sabaya claimed,'' Colonel Danilo Servando said. ``We consider it as a bluff of Sabaya.''
HOPEFUL
Chief military spokesman Brigadier-General Edilberto Adan echoed that line in the capital Manila. ``In the past there have been bluffs and he (Sabaya) did not carry out what he said he would do. It is possible Mr. Sobero is still alive. We are hopeful that he is still alive,'' he told a news conference.
Officials on Basilan, 900 km (550 miles) south of Manila, told reporters that one of the dead men was a local Muslim leader, Mahaymin Latip, who had gone to the rebel camp at the weekend to plead for the release of some of the hostages.
The rebels, enraged by talk that villagers were providing the military with information of their whereabouts, beheaded Latip and left his body to be found, they added.
The second body belonged to another Filipino man, they said.
The rebels seized Sobero, an American missionary couple and 17 Filipinos from a beach resort near Palawan island on May 27. After escapes, rescues and fresh seizures, they now hold more than two dozen hostages, all but three of them Filipinos.
A former rebel leader said the Abu Sayyaf claim could be an attempt to sow confusion. ``In the past, there have been beheadings but also, on a few occasions, threats like this turned out to be untrue,'' Farouk Hussein told Reuters in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday. ``I hope this is the case now.''
Hussein, a member of the Moro National Liberation Force which has signed a peace deal with the government, has been involved in hostage negotiations with the Abu Sayyaf previously but said he had not been invited to do so this time.
``You are dealing with a totalitarian kind of people. Some of them are claiming to have political goals, some are being branded as pure and simple bandits or kidnap-for-ransom groups,'' he said. ''From my little experience of negotiating with them, I think there is some wisdom in talking to them.''
The Abu Sayyaf, dismissed by the government as bandits interested only in ransom money, says it is fighting for Muslim self-rule in the south of the Roman Catholic Philippines.
The group has not put forward any demands for the release of hostages, except to insist on the Malaysian negotiator.
In the past, the Abu Sayyaf has asked for -- and reportedly received -- millions of dollars in ransom.
Sobero, 40, is from Corona, California. Missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham are from Wichita, Kansas.
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PHOT CAPTION

Guillermo Sobero, a U.S. citizen being held hostage in the Philippines, apparently traveled there secretly with a girlfriend last month unbeknownst to his estranged wife, police said June 13, 2001. Muslim rebels holding Sobero along with two other U.S. citizens and 17 Filipinos, said Tuesday they had executed him but government officials dismissed the claim as a bluff. Sobero is pictured in this family photograph taken earlier this year. (Jim Ruymen/Reuters)
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