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Nurse, U.S. Man Killed in Philippine Hostage Rescue

Asia: A third captive, the slain American's wife, is hurt. U.S. says it was not involved.


ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — A Kansas missionary and a Philippine nurse held hostage for more than a year by Islamic rebels were shot dead Friday as Philippine troops attacked the kidnappers in the jungle, authorities said.

A second American hostage, missionary Gracia Burnham, 43, was shot in the leg during the two-hour firefight on the island of Mindanao but was rescued and taken by U.S. helicopter to a nearby military hospital.

Col. Renato Padua, who led the raid, said hostages Martin Burnham, 42, Gracia's husband, and nurse Deborah Yap were executed by the Abu Sayyaf rebels during the battle. The kidnappers had threatened to kill the hostages if there was a rescue attempt.

"We tried our best to get all the hostages safely, but the kidnappers were like wild animals," Padua said. "We tried to save Martin and Yap, but they were shot and mercilessly killed by the Abu Sayyaf."

In Manila, however, National Security Advisor Roilo Golez said the government was not in a position to say how the two hostages died or whether they were hit by army bullets intended for the rebels.

Officials said the army mounted the raid because of concern that the kidnappers were on the verge of escaping from troops that had encircled them. The rebels quietly slipped past the army weeks ago and took the hostages to Mindanao from Basilan island, where they had been holed up for nearly a year. The Burnhams, who had lived as missionaries in the Philippines for years, were kidnapped from a seafront hotel while celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary.

U.S. troops stationed on Basilan and Mindanao islands to train and assist the Philippine army were not involved in the rescue attempt, both American and Philippine officials said.

"We had no forces on the ground at the site of the firefight," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Burfeind, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

The U.S. military has for months been sharing sophisticated intelligence equipment with the Philippine forces and teaching them tracking skills to aid in their search for the rebels. But the extent of U.S. participation in Friday's operation was unclear.

Philippine officials said the U.S. provided intelligence that helped pinpoint the location of the hostages, and helped with equipment, planning, technical assistance and advice for the rescue attempt. Burfeind said the Americans were aware of an overall operation to search part of the Zamboanga peninsula but that the gun battle took place when Philippine troops unexpectedly came upon rebels in the jungle, not during a planned raid.

Military Policy Debate

The death of the two hostages is likely to renew debate in Washington and Manila over whether and how the Bush administration should deepen its military involvement in the Philippines.

Marvin Ott, an Asia expert at the National War College in Washington, said the deaths of the two hostages "could play out several ways."

"Some will say this shows the Philippine army needs all the help it can get, and proves the need for a forward-leaning presence in Asia," he said. "Others will say it shows the kind of trouble you get into in places like this. You wind up with blood on your hands, and it's better to just stay out."

Philippine armed forces Chief of Staff Roy Cimatu defended his troops despite the hostages' deaths. "It was really a successful operation," he said in Manila, according to today's edition of the Philippine Daily Tribune. "We wanted to have a very safe rescue operation, but unfortunately there were some casualties."

Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Eduardo Purificacion said the rescue of Gracia Burnham was a "big achievement of the armed forces because the end of the Abu Sayyaf is near."

The Abu Sayyaf, a loose-knit group with several hundred members, says it wants to form an Islamic state in the southern Philippines. Kidnapping for ransom, however, is its main activity. The group was connected to Osama bin Laden during the mid-1990s, but no evidence has become public of a recent link between them.

The group first gained international notoriety in April 2000 when it abducted 21 hostages, most of them foreigners, from the Malaysian diving resort of Sipadan. The rebels received more than $20 million in ransom, which they spent in part on faster boats and better weapons.

Kidnapped in May 2001

On May 27, 2001, the gang snatched Martin and Gracia Burnham from their hotel on the resort island of Palawan. The kidnappers also seized tourist Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif., and 17 Filipino hostages. A few days later they kidnapped Yap on Basilan.

The kidnappers took the hostages many hours by speedboat to Basilan, where they eluded soldiers by hiding in the dense jungle. After several weeks, they beheaded Sobero. Over the months, they released some hostages for ransom and beheaded others until only the Burnhams and Yap remained captive. The Burnhams' family is believed to have paid ransom of $300,000 to free the couple in March, but the deal reportedly went awry and the money is missing.

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