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Rebel leaders 'flee' Philippine bastion

U.S. troops are involved in joint military exercises with Filipino troops on the island
U.S. troops are involved in joint military exercises with Filipino troops on the island  

Staff and wires

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines -- A senior Abu Sayyaf guerrilla has been arrested in the southern Philippines while other top rebels are fleeing their island bastion as a Filipino-U.S. military operation steps up pressure on Muslim militants notorious for kidnappings.

Munib Assa, accused of kidnapping students and beheading two teachers two years ago, was arrested in the southern port city of Zamboanga on Tuesday after he was identified by one of his kidnap victims, Brig. Gen. Rodolfo Diaz told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Meanwhile commanders of the same Muslim group, who are holding two U.S. hostages, have begun fleeing their holdout to evade soldiers pursuing them with high-tech U.S. detection devices, officials told Reuters news agency.

But the American missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham -- held captive by the Abu Sayyaf group -- are believed still be on the island of Basilan, according to a local mayor.

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The capture of guerrilla commander Munib Assa in a Muslim neighborhood suggests that leaders of the Abu Sayyaf group are trying to slip away from the island, Daiz said, adding that the military is verifying reports that two other guerrilla commanders might also have escaped.

Basilan, about 15 km (nine miles) south of Zamboanga, is the center of U.S-Philippine military exercises aimed to help Filipino troops eliminate the guerrilla group, which the United States has linked to Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.

About 160 U.S. special forces, deployed on the island for the counter-terrorism exercises, have brought in sophisticated equipment, including night vision goggles and unmanned spy planes to help pinpoint rebel hideouts.

The Basilan operation marks the most significant expansion of the United States' war on terror after the rout of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Justice official in Asia

American missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham have been held captive for months  

Assa worked under Abu Sabaya, the leader and spokesman of Abu Sayyaf, and was allegedly involved in the raid on the Dos Palmas resort last May 27 in which three Americans and 17 Filipinos were abducted and brought to Abu Sayyaf strongholds, Daiz said.

Abu Sayyaf seized other captives on Basilan last year. Most of the hostages escaped or were released for ransom. Others were killed, including Guillermo Sobero of Corona, California.

Southern Command spokesman Lt. Col. Danilo Servando said Philippine authorities may share some interrogation reports on Assa with U.S. forces involved in Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines.

Expanding its anti-terror campaign in Asia, U.S. officials said Thursday that Washington would post a justice official in Asia to help prosecutors dealing with international criminals, especially those linked to terrorist groups.

U.S. Department of Justice crime chief Michael Horowitz said the United States had prosecutors assigned to London, Paris, Rome, Bogota and Mexico City, but had none in Asia.

"We certainly want to have someone here in Asia. We do a tremendous amount of business here," Horowitz said at an anti-terrorism conference in Bangkok, Thailand.

The prosecutor would assist Asian governments with U.S. extradition requests and the prosecution of financial, trafficking and narcotics crimes, with an emphasis on thwarting terrorism. No decision has been made on where the prosecutor would be based.




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