ZAMBOANGA, Philippines -- Abu Sabaya, the notorious leader of a Muslim guerrilla gang that terrorized the southern Philippines with a string of kidnappings, was presumed dead after a firefight at sea Friday with U.S.-trained forces.
The 39-year-old headed a faction of the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group that abducted more than 100 people over the last year. Some escaped, some were freed and 18 died, including a California man who was beheaded and a Kansas missionary who was fatally shot in a rescue attempt.
Military officials said local special forces -- with surveillance and communications help from American troops -- tracked down Abu Sabaya and six of his men as they appeared to be fleeing Mindanao island in a boat before dawn.
The troops reported they came under fire and shot back. Southern military commander Maj. Gen. Ernesto Carolina said one soldier reported shooting an already-wounded Abu Sabaya in the back as the guerrilla leader tried to swim away, and that the soldier saw his body sinking.
Navy personnel were searching for the bodies, particularly that of Abu Sabaya.
The Philippine military said it had been hot on Abu Sabaya's trail after a June 7 rescue attempt. Martin Burnham of Wichita, Kan., and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap were killed in the ensuing fight, while Burnham's wife, Gracia, was rescued. The three were the last of the group's hostages.
Abu Sabaya's trademark sunglasses were left behind as he and his men retreated. Washington recently offered a $5 million bounty for Abu Sabaya's capture.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo congratulated the military.
"Terrorists will be hunted down relentlessly wherever they are," she said. "Once behaving like kings ... the Abu Sayyaf rebels now are like rats hiding in their holes."
One congressman called for a national holiday. But Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes warned, "We should not open the champagne bottle too early.
'Terrorism is terrorism'
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld commended Philippine forces for Friday's engagement and "for their continued battle against the terrorist problems. ... There are other leaders and there are other members of the group, and terrorism is terrorism."
Carolina said the clash took place around 4:20 a.m. between Abu Sabaya's group and a team from the Philippine marines and the navy special warfare group.
He said the soldiers observed a boat "surreptitiously" sailing from a coastal village and followed it for about 45 minutes. The soldiers, using night-vision goggles, decided to intercept it after they saw seven armed men on board.
As they approached, the soldiers came under fire and shot back, hitting three men who fell overboard, Carolina said.
The soldiers then used their speed boat to ram the other vessel, damaging it severely. The four other gunmen surrendered, Carolina said.
He said one soldier fired from only three yards at one rebel trying to swim away in a black sweatshirt. He was identified as Abu Sabaya by the four other gunmen.
Maj. Richard Sater, a spokesman for U.S. forces, called the report of Abu Sabaya's death "a step forward in the war against terrorism."