Mynardo Macaraig,ZAMBOANGA, Philippines, AFP
The Philippine military predicted Sunday an imminent end to the Abu Sayyaf kidnap gang as troops pursued remnants of the group two days after two hostages, including a U.S. missionary, were killed in a bloody rescue attempt.
President Gloria Arroyo has ordered the dispatch of an additional army battalion, or about 500 soldiers, to back up some 5,000 soldiers already scouring the jungle-clad south for the Islamic gunmen, said Melchor Rosales, a defense department spokesman.
Army scouts were tracking Abu Sayyaf stragglers in the southern islands of Basilan and Jolo and the neighboring province of Zamboanga del Norte where on Friday a military rescue attempt left two hostages dead and one injured.
Martin Burnham and a Filipina captive, Ediborah Yap, were slain while Martin’s wife, Gracia, was shot in the leg but freed. Four Abu Sayyaf members were also killed in the operation that Manila claims U.S. troops helped plan.
“The armed forces have been instructed to crush the whole (rebel) force so that is exactly what the mission is at the moment,” Rosales told reporters.
“An army battalion is being sent to the (main southern Philippine) island of Mindanao to augment existing operations,” he added.
Military southern command chief Major General Ernesto Carolina said the rebels were “running, they are splintered, demoralized.”
“It isn’t just close. It is here,” Carolina told AFP, referring to the rebel’s destruction.
He said the group had been reduced from a peak of 1,200 fighters to just 242.
About 30-40 key leaders and their aides involved in the Burnham’s kidnapping were being hunted down in Zamboanga del Norte where they are believed to be hiding, Carolina said.
He would not give details about the search but said soldiers there had MG-520 helicopter gunships and 105 mm artillery at their disposal.
Other military forces in the south were mopping up remaining Abu Sayyaf bands on the island strongholds of Basilan and Jolo, Carolina said.
Gracia Burnham is scheduled to depart Monday for the United States for a reunion with her three children who were repatriated back to Kansas from the Philippines after the couples’s kidnap in May last year, officials said.
President Gloria Arroyo, who met Gracia on Saturday, also met with Yap’s four children and her mother who were flown to Manila.
Arroyo promised scholarship grants to Yap’s children, who were later taken to meet with Gracia Burnham at an undisclosed place.
“She’s (Gracia) been with their mother for one year and Gracia is sure that the children (Yap’s) want to know many details about how their mother has been throughout the past year,” Arroyo said.
Arroyo said Gracia told her that Yap “was a hero” who died in the line of duty.
Previous reports have said that Yap, a nurse, had refused to leave behind the ailing Americans despite the Abu Sayyaf giving her a chance to flee.
On Sunday, Yap’s body was ferried by the Philippine navy back to her home town of Lamitan on Basilan island where it was given a hero’s welcome.
U.S. President George W. Bush in a telephone call to Arroyo hours after the rescue attempt called for tougher action against the rebels, who have been linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network.
More than 1,000 U.S. troops have been training and assisting the local army against the Abu Sayyaf, which had successfully evaded military pursuit operations in the past.