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Abu Sayyaf hostages rescued, one beheaded

boat troops
Troops hunting the Abu Sayaf have had to chase a waterborne foe  

By Rufi Vigilar

MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- Troops rescued four hostages being held by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas in the southern Philippines early Sunday, barely a day after one new hostage was beheaded.

Armed Forces spokesman General Edilberto Adan told CNN that four other civilians were abducted Saturday in Basilan province, a guerrilla stronghold 900 km (560 miles) south of Manila.

"One was beheaded, two escaped," Adan said. The fourth remains in guerrilla custody.

Adan told CNN that Sunday's rescue took place after a gun battle about 1 a.m.

"Reports from the field said 21 rebels were killed and 17 soldiers wounded," Adan said.

Plantation workers

Nine hostages have gained freedom in the past two days.

Adan said three of the hostages rescued Sunday were plantation workers seized in July. The fourth was among those seized in June when Abu Sayyaf guerrillas took shelter in a hospital and later slipped through a military cordon.

Abu Sayyaf: Militants in the Philippines 

Three other plantation workers slipped out of guerrilla hands Friday. Two of those abducted Saturday escaped.

The latest beheading is the twelfth since the Muslim separatist guerrillas abducted more than 50 hostages in four separate incidents beginning May 27.

Ten Filipinos and an American missionary couple remain captive. Others were earlier either freed on alleged ransoms or escaped.

Adan declined to confirm reports by a news agency that two Arabs were among the captors.

Golez said the quick turn of events underscores the military's intensified operations against the Abu Sayyaf.

Frequent gun battles

Abu Sayyaf
Abu Sayyaf rebels have been able to keep their distance from troops  

The "random kidnapping of civilians" was being done "out of desperation" amid more frequent gun battles with military troops in recent weeks, Golez said.

"More results would be seen in the next 15 days," he told CNN.

At least three key guerrilla leaders have been captured in the past month.

Saturday's incidents also took place a day after the Philippine government announced the arrival of U.S. intelligence officials in the next two weeks to help subdue the kidnap group.

The U.S. embassy in Manila also belatedly confirmed Friday that American hostage Guillermo Sobero had indeed been beheaded.

Sobero's remains were recovered in Basilan a week earlier and identified by U.S. forensic experts.

The Abu Sayyaf claimed to have beheaded Sobero on June 12 as an "Independence Day gift" to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's administration.

November deadline

Military officials had earlier set a November deadline to subdue the Abu Sayyaf, which the Philippine government has dismissed as a mere bandit gang.

The U.S. government has listed the Abu Sayyaf among 27 organizations with links to Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Golez stressed that U.S. troops arriving in the coming weeks will not directly participate in military operations.

"Their participation will be limited to providing special equipment, training, and sharing of intelligence information," Golez said.

Golez allayed fears that U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition troops may conduct air strikes in the southern Philippines, like those being conducted in Afghanistan.

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