Authorities were today anxiously awaiting contact with Muslim extremists as the rebels’ threatened to behead three American captives.
The Abu Sayyaf rebels originally said on Thursday they would kill the Americans among their 13 hostages in 72 hours, or sometime this afternoon.
But National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said rebel leader Abu Sabaya told a government negotiator he would carry out the threat tomorrow if authorities didn’t appoint two Malaysians to negotiate their release.
Thousands of soldiers scoured the southern island of Basilan, racing the deadline. The Abu Sayyaf is estimated to have 1,100 fighters in the southern Philippines,
"We have troops from the east and troops from the west in a pincer movement to make sure we find them as soon as possible and crush them," Golez said today.
"We are not prepared to grant any concessions."
Guerrilla leader Abu Sabaya has demanded the Philippine government appoint former Malaysian lawmaker Sairin Karno and merchant Yusof Hamdan as mediators.
Both negotiated last year when the Abu Sayyaf released foreign hostages taken from a Malaysian resort, reportedly for millions of dollars in ransom.
Presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao has said a foreign mediator "might cause some misunderstanding".
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who took office early this year, reiterated her no-ransom policy today.
"If we gave ransom, what would happen? All this will happen again, and the Abu Sayyaf will even be able to modernise," Arroyo said.
Basilan provincial Governor Wahab Akbar said there were reported sightings of about 100 Abu Sayyaf guerillas led by Sabaya, carrying six hostages in Lantawan town in central Basilan, 560 miles south of Manila.
It was not known if the American hostages were with them, but it was likely they were since Sabaya led the group, Akbar said.
He said he was unaware of any deadline set by Sabaya, but that it was unlikely the guerillas would kill all three Americans.
"They are dollars and bargaining chips," Akbar said.
He cited local residents as saying the hostages were being hidden in schools and houses.
Troops combed the island for a fourth straight day with no sign of the rebels, who fanned out into dense jungle to escape their pursuers.
Other than a few calls by satellite telephone from Sabaya in recent days, mostly cut off after brief, shaky connections, official government negotiators reported little contact with the group.
The Government said it would only discuss the hostages’ unconditional release.
The Abu Sayyaf seized Corona, California, resident Guillermo Sobero and Wichita, Kansas, missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham on May 27 in a raid on a western Philippine beach resort.
They also took 17 Filipino hostages, including three resort workers. Nine escaped during fierce fighting with the military a week ago. Two of the workers were later found hacked to death. One was beheaded.
After seizing four people from a hospital last Saturday, the Abu Sayyaf had 13 hostages.
The Abu Sayyaf has threatened to kill foreign hostages in the past but has not done so.