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Saturday, 22 June, 2002, 04:47 GMT 05:47 UK
Philippines search for rebel's body
Abu Sabaya (left) with some of his men
Abu Sabaya (left): On the US most-wanted list
Philippine navy divers have been searching to recover the body of a key leader of the Muslim rebel group Abu Sayyaf, after President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo reported his death in a clash with special forces.


He was seen to have fallen into the water and drowned

President Arroyo statement
Abu Sabaya was shot and possibly killed, along with two of his men, in a gunfight at sea with troops, military officials say.

The bodies are yet to be found, but four other rebels who were captured confirmed their leader was one of three men who jumped off the sinking boat near the coast of southern Zamboanga peninsula.

Major General Ernesto Carolina holds a picture of the rebels captured
Four men rescued from the sinking vessel are being questioned
US forces provided communications and intelligence for the naval raid believed to have killed the group's leader, Pentagon officials said on Friday.

US President George W Bush praised President Arroyo's pursuit of the militants: "I want to congratulate Gloria Arroyo for being tough and firm and strong to help rid the world of this particular threat."

Major-General Ernesto Carolina said divers had recovered sunglasses like those worn by Abu Sabaya, a satellite phone and a backpack from the sea.

If Abu Sabaya's death is confirmed, it will be a major blow to the rebel group, which is notorious for carrying out kidnaps for ransom.

Hostage-taking is the group's main activity although its stated aim is the creation of an independent Muslim state in the south of the mainly Christian Philippines.

The US believes the group has links with Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. In May it put a $5m bounty on the head of Abu Sabaya, along with four other leaders.

Celebrity

The four wounded men who were rescued from the sinking boat were "verified Abu Sayyaf" and were being interrogated, said a defence spokesman.

Abu Sabaya
Real name Aldam Tilao
Aged 40
Former police trainee
Former member of Muslim separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)
Quit MNLF when it signed '96 peace treaty
Spent time in Saudi Arabia
Returned to Philippines in '99
Trademark dress: Black bandana and sunglasses

The BBC's John McLean in Manila says Abu Sabaya is something of a national celebrity because of his habit of calling local radio stations on his satellite phones to taunt the authorities.

He and his men had been holding two American missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, and a Filipina nurse Ediborah Yap for more than a year.

An operation mounted by the Philippine military on 7 June rescued Mrs Burnham, but the other two hostages were killed in the fighting.

US troops have been helping to train local soldiers to fight the guerrillas for several months.

The group is led by the reclusive Khadafi Janjalani, the brother of founder Abdurajak Janjalani who was killed by troops in 1998.

See also:

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29 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
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