RP rebels say U.S. hostages will die on Sunday

LAMITAN, Philippines, AP

A Muslim rebel leader holding a Kansas couple and a Californian hostage threatened Thursday to “chop the heads off the Americans in 72 hours” unless the Philippine government appoints two Malaysian negotiators to mediate their release.

But the government, under pressure as soldiers die, tourism wanes and the crisis dragged into its 11th day, pledged more attacks on the guerrillas and said foreign mediators may only complicate talks. The Malaysian government said it will not intervene.

Abu Sabaya, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf extremist group, phoned Radio Mindanao Network from a hideout to say he will kill Wichita, Kansas missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham and Corona, California resident Guillermo Sobero on Sunday if his choice of negotiators is not included in talks with the government.

Hours earlier, Sabaya said he would kill the Americans at noon Thursday unless the government includes former Malaysian lawmaker Sarno Sairin and merchant Yusof Hamdan in talks. Both negotiated last year when the Abu Sayyaf released foreign hostages for reported multimillion dollar ransoms.

Sabaya announced the extension hours after the noon Thursday deadline.

Sobero and the Burnhams were among 20 people abducted May 27 in an Abu Sayyaf raid on an idyllic beach resort in the western Philippines. After a four-day sea journey to the Abu Sayyaf’s southern base, nine hostages escaped amid fighting with Philippine soldiers. Two more — a resort security guard and a cook — were found hacked to death Sunday. One was beheaded.

Sabaya has made similar threats toward foreign hostages in the past but has never delivered on them.

The guerrillas, who say they are fighting to create a Muslim state in the southern Philippines but are often accused of mere banditry, held Oakland, California resident Jeffrey Schilling for more than seven months. They had said he was shot, he stopped eating, he tried to commit suicide and that they tortured him. He was rescued by the military in April, slimmer and hungry but physically unharmed.

The Abu Sayyaf, however, has executed some Filipino hostages.

On Sunday, soldiers found the decomposed bodies of a cook and a security guard seized from the beach resort along with tourists May 27. Both were hacked and one was beheaded. The group also beheaded two Filipino teachers they abducted last year.

Presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao on Thursday tried to discourage the idea of a Malaysian negotiator, saying a foreign intermediary “might cause some misunderstanding.”

National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said the military will continue its attack.