JOLO, Philippines, AFP

Philippine troops have killed 105 Muslim guerrillas in a hostage rescue bid, but recovering the captives who include an American and three Malaysians may take a month, officials said Monday.

The latest to fall under government gunfire in southern Jolo island Monday afternoon were two gunmen in a 100-strong unit believed to be holding U.S. hostage Jeffrey Schilling, Defence Secretary Orlando Mercado said.

Schilling, who was reportedly seen at the weekend, his limbs bound and covered with sores, again appealed to the government over local radio to suspend the military operation launched on September 16 and resume talks with the rebels.

Aside from the American, the Abu Sayyaf gunmen also hold three Malaysians and 13 Filipinos.

Military officials said based on the bodies of guerrillas recovered and intelligence reports received, some 105 Abu Sayyaf members had been killed and 26 others arrested during the operation so far.

Chief of staff General Angelo Reyes said a rebel leader, Radulan Sajiron, was badly wounded in a clash.

Reyes put government casualties at one soldier dead and six wounded.

Among civilians, he said there were two deaths and four wounded.

The operation’s commander, Brigadier-General Narciso Abaya, told journalists Monday during the first officially-permitted media visit to Jolo since the military operation began that “all of the hostages are alive” and were on the island.

Some reports have said that Abu Sayyaf units have slipped through a naval blockade around Jolo with some hostages.

“This is a very difficult operation,” Abaya said. Searching for hostages on the 897 square-kilometer (345 square-mile) jungle-clad island is akin to looking for the “proverbial needle in the haystack.”

Some 36,330 Jolo residents had been displaced by the military strikes, military chief Reyes said.

He admitted the military had been “overly optimistic” of completing the operation aimed at rescuing the hostages and destroying the Abu Sayyaf within a week.

“The problem is more difficult than we expected,” Reyes said. “We ask you to be patient.”

He later said the operation by 4,000 troops should take several more weeks or a month.

The hostage crisis began on April 23 with a cross-border abduction of 21 people, mostly foreigners, from the Sipadan resort in neighboring Malaysia.

Estrada ordered the assault when the Abu Sayyaf raided another Malaysian resort after ransoming off the earlier hostages for sums estimated by the military at millions of dollars.

Two French journalists among the hostages escaped last week in the first positive result of the mission.

Abaya said the Abu Sayyaf core group “is still intact” because they enjoy “mass-based support” and “they just keep on running, they don’t want to fight.”

Estrada said Monday, “our soldiers are doing all they can,” but “because of unforeseen circumstances like heavy rain, the operation has been hampered.”