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Last Updated: Friday, 13 August, 2004, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
Abu Sayyaf men sentenced to death
Seventeen suspected members of the Islamic rebel group Abu Sayyaf have been sentenced to death in the Philippines.

The men - four of whom were tried in absentia - were found guilty of kidnapping four people on the southern island of Basilan three years ago.

This is the first wide-scale conviction of suspected Abu Sayyaf rebels.

One of the smallest of the Muslim rebel groups in the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf is notorious for taking hostages.

The 17 defendants were convicted of kidnapping three nurses and a general hospital worker in June 2001.

Only 13 of the accused were in court. The other four, who escaped from a detention centre in April, were sentenced in absentia.

Separate trial

The court heard that the rebels had raided a hospital in the town of Lamitan to get medicine, and had taken hostages when the building was surrounded by Philippine government soldiers.

The month before, Abu Sayyaf militants are also said to have kidnapped 20 Philippine and American tourists from a beach resort.

Two of the nurses were freed after months of captivity, whilst the hospital worker managed to escape.

The third nurse and an American hostage were killed in a military rescue operation in July 2002.

The militants had earlier beheaded another American.

A separate trial in Manila is dealing with the abduction and deaths of the Americans.

Aileen Marie Gutierrez, a state prosecutor, said the decision to sentence the 17 men to death showed that "justice still works" in the Philippines.

"This is a strong signal that government is determined to wipe out terrorism in the south," she told Reuters news agency.

Abu Sayyaf, which is said to have links with al-Qaeda, has been weakened in recent years.

But the rebels remain active, despite frequent operations by Philippine troops trained and advised by elite US soldiers.




SEE ALSO:
Philippines hunt for fugitives
12 Apr 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Militants flee Philippines jail
10 Apr 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Abu Sayyaf leader killed
08 Apr 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Philippines bomb plot 'thwarted'
30 Mar 04  |  Asia-Pacific



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