A military spokesman said Monday the kidnapping of 33 Filipinos and beheading of 10 by Muslim guerrillas in the south was a “temporary setback” and predicted a battle any time with militants holding at least two Americans.
Soldiers pursued the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas deep into jungles of southern Basilan island Monday and expected soon to find the unit holding missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, who are from Wichita, Kansas, said Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan, a military spokesman.
“The terrorists are having a hard time moving and we expect an encounter in the near term,” Adan said.
He said last Thursday’s raid on the remote village of Balobo, where the rebels abducted 33 civilians, was meant to distract soldiers from their hunt for the Burnhams and other hostages.
On Sunday, soldiers stormed an Abu Sayyaf overnight camp in the mountains and rescued 13 of hostages captured from Balobo, 950 kilometers (590 miles) south of Manila.
Initial reports indicated the guerrillas kidnapped 36 people from Balobo but Adan said only 33 were seized and all are now accounted for.
He said 13 were rescued, eight were released and two escaped. The Abu Sayyaf beheaded the other 10, he said.
Beheading has become a hallmark of the Abu Sayyaf, which claims it is seeking a separate Muslim state although the Philippine government calls the group nothing more than bandits out to profit from kidnapping. At least 16 headless bodies have been discovered near Abu Sayyaf strongholds since early June.
All of the victims were Christians. Basilan has a large Muslim population but the Philippines is mostly Roman Catholic.
Adan said the army’s 10-week-old hunt has cut the rebels’ supply lines and is impeding the movement of the fighters holding the Americans.
“The Americans are still being held and are being transferred from place to place,” Adan told a news conference. “They are haggard. They are often times hungry. They eat what the rebels eat. Sometimes they eat only a plate full of rice with a tablespoon of salt.”
Some 5,000 troops have been hunting the Abu Sayyaf on Basilan since shortly after an attack on May 27, when rebels kidnapped 20 people, including the Burnhams and another American, Guillermo Sobero, of Corona, California, from a beach resort on the southwestern island of Palawan.
Several of those hostages were freed, reportedly for ransom, while others reportedly escaped and at least two were killed — one by beheading.
The Abu Sayyaf have said they beheaded Sobero but his body has not yet been found, raising speculation he may be alive.
The Abu Sayyaf, thought to number 1,100 fighters, embarrassed the Philippines in a similar hostage crisis last year when it seized 21 hostages from a Malaysian resort and reportedly collected millions of dollars in ransom.