Philippines officials believe US hostage is dead

A top Philippines military spokesman said today that officials believe American hostage Guillermo Sobero is dead.

A top Philippines military spokesman said today that officials believe American hostage Guillermo Sobero is dead.

Muslim extremists claimed last week they had beheaded him.

Brigadier General Edilberto Adan told a news conference that the conclusion was based in part on information provided by Francis Ganzon, one of three other hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas who were reunited with their families on Saturday.

The rebels still hold about two dozen other hostages, including Kansas missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham. They were captured three weeks ago in a raid on an island resort across the Sulu Sea.

‘‘We have strong reasons to believe the statement of Mr Ganzon that Guillermo Sobero is dead,’’ Adan said in Manila. ‘‘He appeared to have died on the night of June 11 after he was hogtied and separated from the rest of the hostages.

‘‘Before this, he was suffering from a wound in his right foot. It appears he was diabetic because the nurses, after administering antibiotics, found the wound did not heal.’’

He said he had no word on the specific cause of death. Abu Sabaya, an Abu Sayyaf leader holding the hostages, said last Tuesday he had killed the 40-year-old Corona, California, man for what he perceived as a government double-cross.

‘‘Various groups have been asked to help locate the body of Sobero. We have no proof as to the exact cause of death. The beheading is a statement of Sabaya,’’ Adan said.

Sabaya claimed Sobero was killed because the Government agreed - minutes before a Sabaya-imposed deadline to kill the Peru native - to a rebel demand for a Malaysian negotiator involved in ending another Abu Sayyaf kidnapping crisis last year. But Sabaya said troops attacked the same night.

‘‘Sabaya said that this was such a joke,’’ Ganzon said in a radio interview last Saturday. ‘‘That night, they said they had cut his head off. But I myself did not see it.’’

Adan said troops were in hot pursuit of the rebels today on the southern island of Basilan.

‘‘We believe they’re (the rebels) still in central Basilan. Our troops are closing in on them,’’ Adan said. ‘‘The vegetation is very dense and terrain is muddy, and the rebels have their diversionary attacks to mislead their true location.’’

He reported a 15-minute encounter between soldiers and the rebels on Sunday afternoon. There were no government casualties, and troops recovered an M-16 rifle, he added.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was visiting Basilan today.

After the resort raid, the rebels transported their hostages to Basilan in what Ganzon called a grueling 10-hour speedboat trip.

Since then, 11 of the original hostages have escaped, some reportedly were allowed to do so after relatives paid ransoms in violation of government policy and two resort workers have been found hacked to death.

But the rebels seized four medical personnel when they occupied a hospital for a day two weeks ago, and grabbed another 15 people in an assault on a plantation last Tuesday.

The Government has resisted ransoms because it claims the Abu Sayyaf used the money from last year’s kidnappings to rearm and resupply and that further payments would feed a cycle of abductions.

The Abu Sayyaf says it wants 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.

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