As the Philippines Government stepped up its battle with Muslim rebel hostage-takers today, the military said it found two bodies in guerrilla territory, but neither belonged to the American captive the insurgents claim to have beheaded.
Troops searching an area where Abu Sayyaf guerrillas were believed to be holding 28 hostages said they could not find any sign of Guillermo Sobero, the California resident that the rebels said they killed yesterday.
Several hundred military reinforcements joined thousands of troops to hunt the rebels on the southern island of Basilan, and more were to arrive soon, National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said.
Troops found two beheaded bodies of Filipinos near where rebels seized 15 people from a plantation on Monday. Golez said one was unrelated to the hostage crisis; the other was a Muslim negotiator who had contacted the rebels.
Still, armed forces Chief of Staff Diomedio Villanueva said a military intelligence task force reported the possibility that Sobero had been killed remained ‘‘very, very high.’’
Joel Maturan, mayor of the central Basilan town of Tipo Tipo where the Muslim negotiator was found dead, said four negotiators tried to approach the rebels but three fled when rebel leader Abu Sabaya grew angry with their offer.
Maturan told an American television station that Sabaya ordered his men to tie up the negotiator in the form of a cross.
They ‘‘immediately chopped off his head,’’ Maturan said.
It’s not clear what the negotiators’ offer was or when the beheading took place. Golez said the negotiators were not working for the government.
Police Senior Supt Akmad Mamalinta said today that 60 rebels were spotted near General Santos city in the southern Philippines earlier this week, toting machine-guns. He said they bought food from farmers before disappearing into a jungle.
Mamalinta said a separate group of 10 heavily armed men, three apparently wounded, were spotted by farmers in the area earlier.
On May 27, the rebels raided the Dos Palmas resort in the southwestern Philippines, taking 20 people hostage, including Sobero and a missionary couple from Wichita, Kansas: Martin and Gracia Burnham. Nine captives later escaped, and two resort staff members were found hacked to death.
In subsequent attacks, the Abu Sayyaf took more hostages in a hospital and a plantation on Basilan island.
Sabaya yesterday claimed his rebels killed Sobero, a 40-year-old native of Peru, as a gift for the country on Philippine Independence Day.
‘‘We’ve released unconditionally one American, our amigo Guillermo, but we released him without a head,’’ Sabaya said.
He taunted President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has ordered all-out war against the Abu Sayyaf: ‘‘Tell Gloria to hurry up and solve this with her rescue operation because you might not have any hostages left.’’
Earlier, Sabaya had demanded that former Malaysian Sen. Sairin Karno be brought in to help negotiate. He said yesterday that the rebels had beheaded Sobero because he felt the Philippines government was insincere when it said it would accept Sairin’s participation.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said yesterday the Philippines had not asked for Sairin’s help. Asked about the prospect of allowing that, Mahathir said: ‘‘We will study it. If it is not too much of a problem, we will,’’ the national news agency, Bernama, reported.
Arroyo, who has offered £1.4m in rewards for Abu Sayyaf leaders and members, said the guerrilla group ‘‘tramples on the values of all humanity.’’
The US Embassy in Manila condemned the reported beheading as a ‘‘cowardly act.’’
Last year, the rebels seized several hostages and executed two Filipino teachers as a ‘‘birthday gift’’ to then-President Joseph Estrada. But this was the first time the Abu Sayyaf had claimed to have killed a foreigner.
Sairin helped mediate last year’s kidnapping crisis, during which millions of pounds in ransoms were reportedly paid to the rebels. The insurgents reportedly used ransom money to buy arms and speedboats. Arroyo has vowed to pay no ransoms this time.
The Abu Sayyaf group says it is fighting to create a southern Islamic state, but the government calls the rebels mere bandits. Muslims are a minority in the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines, but they form a majority in the southern islands where the Abu Sayyaf operates.