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Philippines Convicts 14 Abu Sayyaf Militants Linked to 2001 Kidnapping

A Philippine court has convicted 14 militants of kidnapping 20 people in a 2001 incident that eventually left two Americans dead, including one who was beheaded. Douglas Bakshian reports from Manila.

A Manila court Thursday sentenced 14 members of the Abu Sayyaf group to life in prison for their part in the crime. Four other suspects were acquitted.

Robert Courtney, a U.S. Justice Department attaché at the Manila embassy, praised the ruling, saying it sends a strong message about dealing with terrorism.

The kidnapping drama began in 2001 on the western resort island of Palawan, and ended a year later in the jungles of the southern Philippines.

A few weeks after being abducted American Guillermo Sobero was beheaded. The militants moved the hostages around for one year while negotiating for ransom. American missionary Martin Burnham and Filipino nurse Deborah Yap were later killed in an army rescue operation in 2002. Burnham's wife, Gracia, survived.

In a book about the ordeal, entitled "In the Presence of My Enemies", she alleged that an unnamed Filipino general tried to keep part of the money raised for ransom for the hostages, and that soldiers had delivered supplies to the guerrillas.

The kidnapping captured the attention of the international community and gave the United States the opportunity to send troops to the Philippines to train the military in counter terrorism.

Rommel Banlaoi, of the Philippine Institute for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, believes the incident was a key event in the U.S.-led War on Terror.

"Because of the incident the United States invigorated its security alliance with the Philippines in order to crush the Abu Sayyaf group which is believed to be linked with the Al Qaida organization of Osama Bin Laden, and even has strong links with [the regional militant group] Jemmah Islamiya," said Banlaoi.

U.S.-backed operations with Philippine troops several years ago dislodged Abu Sayyaf guerrillas from bases on Basilan island. In the last year-and-a-half Philippine forces also killed several key leaders of the group on Jolo island.

Security officials estimate there are about 300 Abu Sayyaf guerrillas left in the southern Philippines, down from a peak of around one thousand.

Abu Sayyaf is a small but deadly militant group, known for bloody kidnappings and bombings.