Muslim extremists holding 20 hostages--including three Americans--clashed with the military in the southern Philippines early today, military officials and guerrillas said.
Rebel leader Abu Sabaya phoned a local radio station, saying his group was under attack. He repeated a threat to kill the hostages. Near and distant gunfire rang out as he spoke breathlessly to RMN radio station.
Sabaya, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf group, claimed two hostages had been hit by gunfire. He then allowed hostage Teresa Ganzon to talk.
"Please refrain from military action," Ganzon said, her voice breaking. "We are being treated well up to now, but these encounters are going to cost us our lives."
Ganzon said the American hostages were with her group, but she could not confirm that two hostages had been wounded.
"There are children with us. It is not easy to be running in these mountains with children in tow. Please."
Reacting to the appeal, National Security Advisor Roilo Golez said that the government is seeking the "unconditional release" of the hostages but that military operations against the Abu Sayyaf will continue.
"The ground commanders have orders to see to the safety of the hostages," Golez said.
Sabaya said the clash started when his men allowed a group of hostages to take a bath in a river. He said advancing troops found them and started firing.
"The soldiers thought they were rebels like us," Sabaya said of the hostages. Refusing to identify who was hit, he raised an ominous possibility: "Maybe we will stage an execution. Welcome to the party."
Col. Jovenal Narcise, leader of an army battalion on southern Basilan island, confirmed the fighting but did not say whether the military had spotted the hostages.
Sabaya said that in addition to the 20 hostages taken Sunday from the Dos Palmas beach resort in the southwestern Philippines, his group also had seized 10 fishermen.
On Thursday, the military threw 5,000 troops into a search for the rebels and their hostages.
With the Philippine president vowing to crush the rebels, Brig. Gen. Romeo Dominguez said his troops were on a "rescue and destroy" mission.
"We just need one initial positive contact and we will get them," Dominguez said Thursday. "If they are found, the shooting will start."
The military blockaded a 60-mile-wide stretch of ocean after local radio quoted residents as saying they saw the hostages Wednesday night in a boat lined with grenades strung together.