Philippine military officials say Abu Sayyaf rebels have beheaded two of six captives who were abducted Tuesday on a remote southern island.
The chief of operations for the Philippine Southern Command, Colonel Roland Detabali, told VOA that the six captives are members of the Jehovah's Witnesses religious sect. They appeared to be selling cosmetic products when gunmen seized them Tuesday near the town of Patikul on Jolo Island.
Colonel Detabali says two of the hostages were found dead Thursday.
"This morning, there were two heads found by the people in Jolo town," he explained. " So right now, there are four female kidnap victims still in the hands of the perpetrators."
Colonel Detabali says military reinforcements have been sent to the area, but religious leaders are also trying to negotiate the peaceful release of the captives.
The Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network, says it wants an Islamic state in southern Philippines. The government says they are bandits who mainly kidnap for ransom.
It is the first reported abduction by the Abu Sayyaf since joint U.S. and Philippine training exercises aimed at wiping out the rebels on neighboring Basilan Island ended three weeks ago.
Colonel Detabali does not believe the latest violence represents a resurgence of Abu Sayyaf because, he says, the Philippine military has now switched its focus to rebel elements on Jolo Island and Sulu Province.
"It [the kidnapping] could be more of a diversionary effort on their part so that we ease the pressure on their other top leaders in western Sulu," he said.
Abu Sayyaf rebels also are thought to be holding three Indonesian sailors who were kidnapped from a tugboat off Jolo Island two months ago. That kidnapping came days after Philippine troops, backed by U.S. trainers and equipment, rescued an American hostage, missionary Gracia Burnham, from Abu Sayyaf rebels in Zamboanga del Norte Province. Two other hostages, Ms. Burnham's husband Martin and Philippine nurse Ediborah Yap, were killed in the gun battle.
Colonel Detabali says that despite the recent kidnappings, he believes the Philippine military is winning the war against the Abu Sayyaf.
"They are dwindling in numbers and we are addressing this not only militarily, but the whole government machinery, including civilian volunteers, are helping in tamping out the root causes of terrorism, which includes poverty," he noted.
Military officials say Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes is to visit Jolo Island to personally oversee the rescue operations.