The leader of a Muslim rebel group said Monday that he is willing to talk about freeing some captives if the government first halts its assault on his group.
But President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who visited the front lines of the hostage crisis Monday, again vowed to crush the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas.
"There will be no letup," armed forces Chief of Staff Diomedio Villanueva said. "It will continue and continue and continue."
Rebel leader Abu Sabaya--who said last week that he had beheaded a California man, Guillermo Sobero, 40, of Corona--told the Radio Mindanao Network that he asked for Justice Minister Hernando Perez to serve as a negotiator and for the government to call off its hunt for the group and the hostages.
"We agree to renegotiate the release of the hostages," Sabaya said. "Perhaps it's not too late. There are still many lives that the government has to save." The rebels have abducted dozens of people in the last month and want to be paid ransom.
More than 5,000 troops have been deployed to Basilan island, a rebel stronghold. The military has been arming civilian militiamen to help in the hunt.
Visiting Basilan, Arroyo pinned medals on some of the dozens of soldiers wounded in clashes with the rebels. Nineteen others have been killed.
Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan said troops clashed with the rebels Sunday night and were chasing them in the mountains, where they are believed to be holding Martin and Gracia Burnham, missionaries from Kansas, and other captives.
Arroyo also traveled to Lamitan, where a recent battle between soldiers and the rebels damaged a church and a hospital.
She hugged a weeping woman whose daughter, a nurse, was kidnapped at the hospital, and she told the husband of a missing midwife: "I'm sorry. We will do everything to get her back."
The rebels say they want an Islamic state in the southern part of the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines, but the government calls the rebels simple bandits.