Minutes before a deadline by Muslim extremists to behead one of three American captives, the Philippine government dropped its objection to bringing in a Malaysian negotiator in an effort to end a 2-week-old hostage crisis.
As today's noon deadline passed, Abu Sabaya, a commander with the Abu Sayyaf rebel group, called in by satellite telephone to a local radio station, saying he "may postpone" the execution if the Malaysian government confirms it will allow Sen. Sairin Karno to enter the negotiations.
He also issued a veiled threat against a massive military search. "But if the government continues to invade, it's up to them," Sabaya said.
The government was obviously relieved at the reprieve but reiterated its no-ransom policy and refused to call off the thousands of troops swarming over the southern island of Basilan.
With Karno and Malaysian businessman Yusof Hamdan negotiating, millions of dollars in ransoms were reportedly paid by Libya to end last year's hostage crisis, which started with an Abu Sayyaf raid on a Malaysian resort.
The Philippine military says the money allowed the rebels to buy arms and speedboats used in the May 27 abduction of tourists, including three Americans, from a beach resort across the Sulu Sea.
The American hostages are Martin and Gracia Burnham, Protestant missionaries from Wichita, Kan., who have lived in the Philippines since 1986, and Guillermo Sobero of Corona.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan had earlier reiterated the government's no-ransom policy and said Sabaya might be bluffing. The Abu Sayyaf has often threatened to kill foreign hostages in the past without doing so.
The last-minute flurry of activity followed a rebel attack on a plantation near the Basilan town of Lantawan that left an unknown number of children and two adults hostage.
While thousands of troops scoured Basilan on Sunday, soldiers shot dead two Muslim rebels. The two killed were among nine guerrillas arrested by soldiers, but they were gunned down when they tried to fight back, area army commander Col. Hermogenes Esperon said. Two other guerrillas were wounded.
The Abu Sayyaf says it is fighting to carve out an independent Islamic state from the southern Philippines, but the government says the group is engaged in mere banditry.