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Wednesday, 26 June, 2002, 07:00 GMT 08:00 UK
Philippines ends search for shot rebel
The boat used by the Abu Sayyaf during the gun fight
Four rebels were captured during the sea battle
Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has called off a military search for the body of a top Muslim rebel leader believed to have died in a gun battle at sea.

Abu Sabaya, one of the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf group notorious for kidnappings, is believed to have been shot in the back in a shoot-out with troops last Friday.

Abu Sabaya
Abu Sabaya led the kidnap of US hostages
The military has been hunting for his body in an 800 square-kilometre (307 square-mile) section of the Sulu Sea, off southern Zamboanga del Norte province.

But the president has now said the military should instead concentrate on finding the remaining members of the Abu Sayyaf.

Speaking at a breakfast meeting on Wednesday, the president said a $1,000- (50,000 peso-) reward for the discovery of Mr Sabaya's body would motivate local fishermen to continue the search.

But there has been some speculation in the local media that Mr Sabaya might not be dead. In a television interview on Wednesday, a former hostage, Buddy Romero, said he refused to believe it was true until the military produced Mr Sabaya's body.

The military says the body may have been eaten by sharks.

Kidnapping gang

On Tuesday President Arroyo awarded a $100,000- (5 million peso-) reward to an informant who led the military to Mr Sabaya - the main spokesman of the Abu Sayyaf.

The informant, who collected his money using the pseudonym Gardo Ibrahim, had acted as a courier for the rebels and as one of Mr Sabaya's bodyguards.

Military displays the contents of a backpack believed to be Abu Sabaya's
Abu Sabaya's backpack was recovered
The military said Mr Ibrahim had called soldiers and told them Mr Sabaya was planning to escape to sea.

Mr Sabaya and a handful of followers had fled following a shoot-out with the military earlier this month which resulted in the deaths of US hostage Martin Burnham and a Filipina nurse, Ediborah Yap.

The group had been holding the hostages in dense jungles for more than a year. Mr Burnham's wife Gracia survived the gun battle and has returned to the US.

Hostage-taking is the Abu Sayyaf'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 links the group to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and in May it offered up to $5m as a reward for the arrest of Mr Sabaya and four other top leaders.

The military says there are about 200 rebels still hiding out on the mainly Muslim southern islands of Basilan and Jolo.

See also:

25 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
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21 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
06 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
01 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
29 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
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