MANILA — A Philippine court convicted 14 Muslim militants today of abducting a U.S. missionary couple and 18 others in a string of 2001 kidnappings that resulted in the deaths of two Americans and prompted Washington to start training Filipino troops.
Most of the top leaders of Abu Sayyaf, which orchestrated the abductions at a resort, have been killed since the trial opened in 2003. Philippine officials have credited the U.S. counter-terrorism training that began in 2002 for many of the successes against the group, which has links to Al Qaeda.
Of 85 suspects charged with kidnapping, 23 were captured and tried, and 18 others appeared in court.
Fourteen were sentenced today to life in prison and four were acquitted. Four others were killed in an attempted prison break in 2005, and one has been cleared of charges.
Among those acquitted was the only woman in the group, Satra Tilao, the disabled sister of rebel leader Abu Sabaya, who was killed by troops after the abductions.
Americans Gracia and Martin Burnham, missionaries for the Florida-based New Tribes Mission, were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary in May 2001 when they were abducted by Abu Sayyaf militants at the Dos Palmas resort on Palawan island and taken by speedboat to southern Basilan island.
Fellow American Guillermo Sobero and 17 Filipinos also were kidnapped. Sobero, from Corona, Calif., was among several hostages beheaded by the rebels. Martin Burnham and a Filipino nurse were killed during a military rescue raid in June 2002.
The other hostages were released or managed to escape.
The guerrillas have been dislodged from their bases on Basilan but have remained a major threat and continued to regroup.
The group's overall leader, Khadafi Abubakar Janjalani, was killed in September 2006 in fighting on southern Jolo island. His presumed successor, Abu Sulaiman, was killed in a clash this year.