Philippine military says militants suffer setback

Thursday, January 18, 2007

MANILA, Philippines -- The announcement Wednesday of the killing of Abu Sulaiman, a senior leader of the Abu Sayyaf militant group, represents a major blow against one of the world's most notorious terror organizations. Sulaiman, a 41-year-old whose real name is Jainal Antel Sali Jr., left a legacy of lethal attacks and ransom kidnappings -- outrages that put him on both the U.S. and the Philippine most-wanted lists. Sulaiman claimed responsibility for a 2004 bombing aboard a ferry in the Philippines. The blast and resulting fire killed 116 people, in Southeast Asia's second worst terror attack. But he was best known in the United States, perhaps, as the mastermind of the kidnapping of American and Filipino tourists from a resort on the southeastern island of Palawan in 2001. One of the Americans, Guillermo Sobero, was beheaded.

Gracia Burnham, another of the hostages, said in a statement Wednesday that Sulaiman now faces judgment by God.

"Based on the six months I had close contact with Sulaiman during our year of captivity, I would say he was the most dangerous of the Abu Sayyaf leaders because he was filled with hate," she said.

She and her husband, Martin, both missionaries, were held for more than a year. She was wounded and her husband died in the rescue effort that freed her.

"Martin and Sulaiman had long talks about their beliefs and beliefs in general while we were in the jungle, so today my heart is filled with sadness for Sulaiman because his next step is to face almighty God to be judged," she said.

The kidnappings prompted Philippine authorities to allow the deployment of U.S. troops in the southern Mindanao region to train and arm Filipino soldiers working to wipe out Abu Sayyaf.

After years of tracking Sulaiman, Philippine troops cornered him and other rebel leaders Tuesday in a jungle hideout on Jolo Island, 590 miles south of Manila, military officials said.

U.S. troops and military advisers in the southern Philippines provided training and intelligence for the 4-monthlong offensive. The U.S. had offered up to $5 million for Sulaiman's capture or killing.

Troops stormed the camp, fortified with 17 bunkers and resembling a bomb factory, starting a three-hour gunbattle that left two soldiers wounded and Sulaiman dead, regional army spokesman Maj. Eugene Batara said. Other insurgents escaped and troops pursued them, Batara said.

The battle involved the army's 8th Special Forces Company and about 60 Abu Sayyaf gunmen, military chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon told reporters.

Two top Indonesian terror suspects -- Omar Patek and a man known as Dulmatin -- were believed to be hiding in the camp, the military said. Both are blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people in Indonesia.

Esperon said his troops acted on a tip provided by informants that was later checked through the "technical capabilities" of U.S. forces -- a reference to electronic intelligence-gathering. Such activities in the past have included U.S. spy planes tracking the militants' movements.

Philippine special forces photographed and buried the only body recovered from the rebel compound, not realizing that it was Sulaiman, Esperon said. It was later exhumed and Jolo villagers, a rebel informant and one of Sulaiman's wives identified the remains, Esperon said.

"We have resolved that this group and their major commanders must be finished off, that this notorious group should see its end," Esperon said, and marked an "X" across Sulaiman's face on a wanted poster.

Esperon described the rebel leader -- a former civil engineer who once boasted that his training made it easier for him to plan bombings -- as the highest-ranking Abu Sayyaf commander killed by U.S.-backed troops.

Aside from the ferry attack and the kidnappings, Sulaiman also had a hand in a bombing that killed a U.S. serviceman in 2002, the military chief said.

He estimated the number of Abu Sayyaf guerrillas has dwindled to about 350, from about 1,000 in 2000.

The military believes Sulaiman may have succeeded Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khaddafy Janjalani, who was reportedly killed in a September raid on Jolo Island. The military has been trying to confirm Janjalani's death through DNA tests. If Janjalani is confirmed dead, that would leave Radulan Sahiron, a one-armed commander, among the active Abu Sayyaf veterans.

Sulaiman joined the Moro National Liberation Front, a rebel group fighting for Muslim homeland in the predominantly Christian nation, in the 1970s, but broke away after it signed a peace deal in 1996.

After working for a few years in Saudi Arabia building highways and buildings, police intelligence reports said, he returned home and joined the Abu Sayyaf in the late 1990s.

Sulaiman told The Associated Press in a telephone interview last year that Abu Sayyaf's attacks were retribution for atrocities against Muslims worldwide. "I know that being once a builder of things would make me more efficient in destroying them," he said.

Associated Press writer Oliver Teves contributed to this report.

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