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Philippine militant slain

Jainal Antel Sali Jr., a leader of Abu Sayyaf, was linked to Al Qaeda and had been sought in a Californian's killing.

January 18, 2007|Paul Watson and Al Jacinto | Special to The Times

JOLO ISLAND, PHILIPPINES — A militant leader linked to Al Qaeda and wanted in the beheading of a California tourist was killed in a jungle battle, the Philippine army announced Wednesday.

The military first reported that it had wounded Jainal Antel Sali Jr., also known as Abu Solaiman, on Tuesday when special forces raided a hide-out of the Abu Sayyaf militant group on Jolo island, about 600 miles south of Manila.

But Sali, also wanted in the kidnapping of two American missionaries, was later confirmed dead at a news conference in Manila, where the chief of the armed forces, Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, showed photographs of the corpse.

"We have resolved that this group and their major commanders must be finished off, that this notorious group should see its end," the general said.

Sali was buried Wednesday on Jolo island after relatives and friends identified the body. He had the hole of a soldier's bullet in his chest and a piece of wood, about an inch long, embedded in his left cheek. It was pulled out by two imams hired by the military to clean and bury the corpse in accordance with Muslim custom.

"It was him, all right. It was Abu Solaiman," said Karim Muktar, a Muslim rebel turned government soldier. "His time finally has come, and it's the end of the road for Solaiman."

Sali, a 42-year-old native of Zamboanga who was a civil engineer, commanded an Abu Sayyaf unit known as the urban terrorist group, blamed for a series of bombings in the southern Philippines. He was also an Abu Sayyaf spokesman.

Philippine officials linked Sali to a February 2004 bombing on a ferry, which triggered a fire that killed 116 people.

Wanted by the FBI

Sali was on the FBI's list of most wanted terrorists, and the U.S. State Department had offered a reward of up to $5 million for his capture. He was indicted by a U.S. court in 2002 on charges including the murder of an American outside the U.S. and kidnapping resulting in death, the FBI said. Guillermo Sobero, 40, of Corona, Calif., was beheaded after he was kidnapped in May 2001 with American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, of Wichita, Kan., and 17 Filipinos at an island resort in the southern Philippines.

Sobero's torso was found months after his abduction. Abu Sayyaf, which says it is fighting to establish Islamic rule in the region, said it had executed him.

The Burnhams and other hostages were held for more than a year, during which they were constantly on the move in forced marches through the jungle. Martin Burnham was killed in June 2002 when Philippine commandos launched a rescue mission. Gracia Burnham was wounded in the leg but survived. A Philippine nurse also died, as did several soldiers and guerrillas.

Gracia Burnham released a statement Wednesday after the death of Sali.

"Based on the six months I had close contact with Solaiman during our year of captivity, I would say he was the most dangerous of the Abu Sayyaf leaders because he was filled with hate," the Associated Press reported her saying in the statement.

"Martin and Solaiman had long talks about their beliefs and beliefs in general while we were in the jungle, so today my heart is filled with sadness for Solaiman because his next step is to face almighty God to be judged."

In early 2002, President Bush sent hundreds of American troops, including Special Forces, to advise and train Philippine soldiers battling militants in the south.

The U.S. forces were restricted to noncombat roles and are permitted to fire only in self-defense.

The battle that led to Sali's death raged for more than three hours Tuesday as Philippine troops clashed with about 60 Abu Sayyaf fighters at a hide-out on Mt. Daho, army Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro said as the operation was underway. Two Philippine soldiers were wounded.

Plenty of cover

Mt. Daho is an active volcano whose thick canopy of trees and countless crevices provide excellent cover for guerrillas.

Bacarro said Philippine forces had found at least 17 bunkers, camouflaged by large trees, at the guerrillas' camp. Troops also recovered assorted materials used for making crude bombs, including blasting caps.

On Wednesday, the Philippine military sent troops to join the hundreds of soldiers on Jolo who launched an offensive against Abu Sayyaf guerrillas in August.

An air force C-130 cargo plane transported soldiers and weapons, including rockets, that were delivered in a convoy of trucks and armored vehicles to an army base in the town of Jolo, where U.S. troops are stationed.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to visit Jolo to inspect U.S. troops before the start of joint anti-terrorism exercises with Philippine forces next month, a Philippine government source said.

*

paul.watson@latimes.com

Times staff writer Watson reported from Jakarta, Indonesia, and special correspondent Jacinto from Jolo island.

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