One of the top figures in the Muslim guerrilla group that held two Kansas missionaries hostage for more than a year has been killed in a clash with U.S.-trained troops, U.S. and Philippine officials said.
Abu Sabaya was one of the most visible figures in the Abu Sayyaf group, which was holding Americans Martin and Gracia Burnham hostage when Martin Burnham was killed during a Philippine military rescue attempt earlier this month.
Philippine national security adviser Angelo Reyes told local television the military was still searching for the body of Sabaya following a firefight off the coast of the Zamboanga peninsula, but two U.S. military officials told ABCNEWS they believed the Philippine military had recovered his body.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Sabaya was one of several guerrillas who were on a boat that came under fire by elite Philippine navy troops. Sabaya jumped off after being wounded, she said, but four others were captured.
"The captured Abu Sayyaf members confirmed that one of those who jumped into the sea was Abu Sabaya, who was wearing a black sweat shirt," the president said. "The [military] team also confirmed shooting the man in the black sweat shirt."
Maj. Richard Sater, a spokesman for U.S. forces conducting a counterterrorism training exercise aimed at helping local troops wipe out the Abu Sayyaf, told The Associated Press: "We did get word from the [Philippine military] that Abu Sabaya was one of those killed in the encounter.
"We are encouraged," he said. "It is a step forward in the war against terrorism."
Arroyo, who repeatedly has vowed to crush the Abu Sayyaf, congratulated the military in a written statement.
"Our no-ransom, no-negotiation policy is paying off," she said. "Terrorists will be hunted down relentlessly wherever they are, in the vastness of the jungle or in the high seas. They will be given no room to maneuver, to hide, or to rest. We will not stop until they are all accounted for."
Bigger Fish Remain
Abu Sabaya was the most visible of Abu Sayyaf's commanders, who often called local media with demands and statements taunting the government. He is described in Philippines press reports as the spokesman for the group, but one senior Philippine official told ABCNEWS Sabaya was not the leader.
The Philippine military said it had been hot on Sabaya's trail since June 7, when it managed to save Gracia Burnham, one of the group's last three hostages.
Burham's husband, Martin, and Filipina nurse Ediborah Yap were killed, along with three rebels. The United States recently offered a $5 million bounty for Abu Sabaya's capture. The Abu Sayyaf is believed to have links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
The operation against Abu Sabaya took place early this morning as the guerillas headed out to sea in a motorboat about a half-mile off the coast of Sibuco in Zamboanga del Norte province, site of the June 7 clash.
There were seven Muslim guerrillas on the boat. After they had gone to sea, presumably returning to their headquarters on Basilan Island, they were intercepted by a unit of the Special Warfare Group of the Philippine navy, the Philippine version of the U.S. Navy SEALs.
After a firefight, four rebels were captured. Three ended up in the water. Whether they jumped or fell was unclear. Filipino troops say they shot Sabaya before he landed in the water.
Southern military commander Maj. Gen. Ernesto Carolina told the AP one of the gunmen, believed to be Sabaya, was fired at from only three yards away.
Carolina said he had no doubt that Sabaya was dead.
Abu Sayyaf on the Run
Sabaya was the leader of a predawn raid on a resort on May 27, 2001, in which the Abu Sayyaf took 20 hostages, including the Burnhams and another American, Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif. The group later beheaded Sobero.
The massive search that followed led to the ongoing six-month deployment of 1,000 American troops to train local soldiers to combat Abu Sayaaf terrorists. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has approved a plan to let those U.S. special operations trainers go out into the jungle with the Philippine military on the hunt for the Muslim guerrillas.
The U.S. military provided planning, intelligence and communications for this latest operation, helping target the boat. Asked whether Americans were nearby, Sater told the AP: "Yes, but I can't say how near."
Pentagon officials say hundreds of Abu Sayyaf have been killed, detained or fled the country since the United States began the training operation in February. They are believed to be demoralized, low on supplies and running out of places to hide.
Sabaya's real name was Aldam Tilao. He once studied computer engineering, but after visiting Saudi Arabia for work, he returned home in the late 1980s and later disappeared.
ABCNEWS' Brian Hartman at the Pentagon contributed to this report.