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Philippine Military Issues Deadline for Hostages' Release - 2002-08-23

Philippine troops are preparing to move against strongholds of kidnappers who killed two of six people they abducted in the southern Philippines. The kidnappers are being given five days to return the captives unharmed or face a major military onslaught.

The Philippine military has sent hundreds of additional troops to Jolo island since the heads of the two murdered Philippine men were found in a market in Jolo City early Thursday. The island is about 1,000 kilometers south of the nation's capital, Manila.

They were part of a group of six Christians, members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, abducted in the town of Patikul Wednesday. Four women from the group are still being held. Two Muslims were also snatched with the group but were released a few hours later.

The governor of Sulu province, Yusop Jikiri, says the military commander of the province, Romeo Tolentino, is preparing a major operation against the gunmen.

"He [Tolentino] has not yet started using the [heavy] arms, but what he is doing now is preparing the deployment of these forces," he said.

The head of the Philippines military has said he is giving the kidnappers five days to negotiate the peaceful release of the captives.

Governor Jikiri says local emissaries are already trying to open negotiations.

"The municipal government of Patikul are initiating moves in order to negotiate peacefully, but until now we are awaiting the feedback from the negotiator," he announced.

Military authorities earlier said the kidnappers belonged to the Abu Sayyaf group, which has been linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network. But the governor says his reports indicate they are bandits.

Military officials say the severed heads of the murdered men were found with a note calling for jihad, or holy war, against infidels. The Abu Sayyaf rebels say they are fighting for an Islamic state in the southern Philippines, although they are known primarily for kidnapping for ransom.

The Philippine government declared the Abu Sayyaf had been virtually destroyed following training exercises with the U.S. military that ended three weeks ago on nearby Basilan island. Most of the U.S. troops have left, but others are to arrive in October for another exercise, on Jolo island.