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U.S. offers $5 million Abu Sayyaf bounty

The Burnhams were snatched by the Abu Sayyaf nearly a year ago from a beach resort in western Palawan  

From Maria Ressa
CNN correspondent

MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- The United States offered a reward of up to $5 million Wednesday for the arrest or conviction of five leaders of the Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremist group who kidnapped three Americans last year, killing one of them.

The reward is being offered under the U.S. State Department's Rewards for Justice, the program that led to the arrest of 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef in the Philippines.

"Today the United States Department of State is launching an initiative under the Rewards for Justice program that will offer ordinary people in the Philippines and around the world an opportunity to contribute to the battle against terrorism," said Francis J. Ricciardone, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines.

Martin and Gracia Burnham were snatched nearly a year ago from a beach resort in western Palawan province along with American Guillermo Sobero and 17 Filipinos.

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    Sobero, a Californian native, was later found to have been beheaded after his remains were uncovered by Filipino troops near the Abu Sayyaf's jungle lair in Basilan province.

    The other 16 Filipinos were later released.

    For the last several months, U.S. Special Forces have joined Filipino patrols in the jungles of Basilan island.

    The joint mission, aimed at wiping out Abu Sayyaf, is part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

    Abu Sayyaf recently admitted to being part of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network, confirming U.S. suspicions.

    The United States put Abu Sayyaf on a list of terrorist groups because of suspected links to al Qaeda -- believed to be behind the September 11 terror attacks.

    No fight

    Over in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga, two U.S. helicopter crews returned fire after being fired upon by what they suspected were members of Abu Sayyaf, a Philippine military official told CNN.

    But a U.S. official denied any live rounds had been fired.

    No one was wounded and the two U.S. Pave Hawk helicopters and crewmembers made it back safely to their base, Col. Alexander Aleo, the Basilan Army Commander told CNN.

    The attack occurred Wednesday morning (Tuesday night EDT), when the helicopters were unloading cargo, Aleo said.

    U.S. soldier in the Philippines
    The U.S. troops are prohibited from taking part in military action in the Philippines  

    It was the first time a military official has confirmed U.S. troops have fired on suspected rebels since the troops came to the Philippines in January.

    The Filipino constitution prohibits foreign troops from engaging in military action on Filipino soil, except in self-defense.

    Separately, a U.S. military official denied American helicopters fired any live rounds.

    According to Maj. Richard Sater, U.S. MH-47 Chinook helicopters fired blank rounds while involved in a joint training exercise with Philippine troops Monday night.

    When asked if this was the same incident as the one involving the Pave Hawk helicopters, Sater said it was uncertain.

    There are 1,000 U.S. troops in the southern Philippines.


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