Hours after Muslim rebels claimed to have beheaded a U.S. hostage in the Philippines, there were indications that one of three Americans kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf was killed by the guerrillas.
As claims of the beheading of Guillermo Sobero, a 39-year-old California native attracted widespread condemnation in the international community, a senior U.S. official told ABCNEWS that sources had seen a videotape of the beheading.
The indications came as Filipino troops found a headless torso on the other side of the Basilan island in southern Philippines from where the rebels said they had killed Sobero.
However the Associated Press reported that the Filipino armed forces Chief of Staff Diomedio Villanueva said it was not believed to be Sobero's body.
Although there were no U.S. teams on the ground and officials still held out the hope that the Abu Sayyaf claims were false, there were growing concerns that the ruthless guerrillas group did indeed carry out the beheadings.
A Chilling Call
Tensions have been high following a chilling call by Abu Sabaya, leader of the guerrilla group earlier today to a Filipino radio station.
"We chopped the head of Guilermo Sobero," Sabaya told Radio Mindanao Network. "They better hurry the rescue, otherwise there will be no hostages left."
There was no confirmation from the military. "We have to verify this information and confirm, because you, know, in the past, Sabaya has said things like this and didn't mean it," said military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan.
The rebels have decapitated other Filipino hostages in the past, but this was the first time the rebels claimed to have killed a foreigner.
Sobero, a tourist from Corona, Calif., along with Martin and Gracia Burnham, two missionaries from Wichita, Kan., and 17 others from a posh resort on the Sulu Sea on May 27.
Last Thursday, the Abu Sayyaf threatened to behead the Americans in 72 hours, if Manila did not respond to its demands to appoint its choice of negotiators and call off the military manhunt for them.
But earlier today, the Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo agreed to allow Malaysian statesman Sairin Karno a member of the team negotiating the release of the hostages.
"If Mr. Sairin can really help, we have no objections to this," presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said today. "We just want to show our sincerity in order to end this crisis and ensure the safety of these innocent victims."
Manila refused to call off the thousands of troops scouring the southern Philippine island of Basilan for them though. Basilan, 560 miles south of Manila, is only 30 miles long and 19 miles wide.
Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said "we don't believe that at this point, if we stop our military operation, things will come out well, and the hostages will just walk free if forces are removed."
After Manila's announcement earlier today, the Abu Sayyaf rebels said they would call off plans to behead one of the "white people."
"If for instance, the Malaysian negotiator gets in, we may release some of the hostages as a goodwill gesture," their leader, Abu Sabaya, said today.
But when they initially issued their demands last week, the rebels had also asked for Malaysian businessman Yusuf Hamdan, in addition to Karno.
According to the Philippine Star, Manila also approved the participation of Hamdan, although officials have not confirmed his inclusion.
Manila is awaiting approval from Kuala Lumpur, where the government has said in the past it doesn't want to get involved in any more hostage negotiations.
The pair helped broker the release of another group of Americans last year, reportedly for millions of dollars in ransom.
After announcing the beheading, Sabaya was apparently remained confident that his demands would be met. He said he would check with the Malaysian government to confirm Karno's participation.
More Hostages, More Problems
Meanwhile, Abu Sayyaf stormed a coconut and coffee plantation in southern Basilan today, grabbing 15 more hostages, including two 12-year-old children.
The rebels also burned down five houses and a chapel. After a series of escapes, executions and new seizures, the rebels now hold a total of 28 hostages.
According to The Associated Press, Sabaya said the attack on the plantation was part of a counteroffensive against the military.
He said the attack was to "create another problem" for the military forces searching for them.
The Abu Sayyaf say they are fighting to carve out an independent Islamic state from the southern Philippines, but the government describes them as bandits.
Muslims are a minority in the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines but are a majority in the islands where the Abu Sayyaf operates.