MANILA, Philippines -- The United States set up a hot line and offered a reward of up to $5 million on Wednesday for the capture of leaders of Abu Sayyaf, the group that has held an American couple hostage for a year.
U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone said the reward is for any or all of five leaders of the group, including Abu Sabaya, who is accused of masterminding a raid in which the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped three Americans and 17 Filipinos. One American was later beheaded.
The Muslim extremist group, which has been linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network, is notorious for beheading hostages and captive soldiers, and sometimes filming the murders.
Ricciardone appealed for anyone with information on the group to call an embassy hot line or a toll-free number in the United States. He said the size of any reward would be decided by a U.S. committee.
"We believe that ordinary citizens of the Philippines and elsewhere may have the information that can help bring the Abu Sayyaf terrorists to justice," the ambassador said.
The five Abu Sayyaf leaders, including Isnilon Hapilon, (alias Abu Musab), Abu Solaiman, Hamsiraji Marusi Sali and Khaddafy Janjalani, have had a $100,000 Filipino government reward on their heads for nearly a year.
Weeks after the raid on the beach resort in May 2001, the Abu Sayyaf beheaded Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif. They still hold a missionary couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan.
The Abu Sayyaf, who are conducting a guerrilla war against the Philippine army on southern Basilan island, are thought to number fewer than 100. Their ranks have dwindled from a force of 1,000 after a year of army offensives.
The group says it is fighting to create a Muslim state in the southern Philippines, home to the country's large Muslim minority. The government calls the Abu Sayyaf fighters mere bandits.
In 2000, the Abu Sayyaf raided a beach resort in Malaysia and abducted 21 people, including European tourists. Most of the hostages were released after the payment of millions of dollars in ransom.
The money allowed the Abu Sayyaf to buy speedboats for their island bases and sophisticated weapons and equipment, including rocket launchers and night-vision goggles.
About 1,000 U.S. troops are in the southern Philippines to train Filipino troops fighting the Abu Sayyaf and to expand military infrastructure in guerrilla territory.
The Americans are prohibited from engaging in combat, but U.S. medics have entered combat zones at least three times in recent months to retrieve and treat Filipino wounded.
The United States has also used satellite surveillance and spy planes to help local troops to track the guerrillas and their hostages.
The Burnhams, who looked thin and tired in a December videotape taken from inside a guerrilla camp, are thought to be constantly handcuffed to their captors. The military has received unconfirmed reports that one or both may be ill after a year of poor diet, extreme stress and constant movement through the jungle.