US missionary couple set for their ninth month in Abu Sayyaf captivity

Tired, distraught and living under horrendous conditions, an American Christian missionary couple will enter their ninth month in captivity this weekend at the hands of Muslim Abu Sayyaf rebels in the southern Philippines.

As they mark yet another month of agony on Sunday in the deep jungles of Basilan island, the United States is pouring hundreds of troops into the south to train their Filipino counterparts to destroy the ruthless kidnappers.

The Americans, Martin and Gracia Burnham from Kansas state, along with a Filipina nurse Deborah Yap are among the last of a group of hostages seized by the Abu Sayyaf in a kidnapping spree that began on May 27 last year.

A third American, Guillermo Sobero of California, was beheaded by the gunmen along with more than a dozen Filipino hostages.

The Burnhams "are ill, very tired, very distraught and living under horrendous conditions for essentially the last eight months now and they are not doing very well at all," a Western diplomat who was briefed by the Philippine authorities on the couple's plight told reporters in Manila.

A US television network aired a footage of the couple this week based on an interview in November.

"Let's say the footage is rather stark to see," the diplomat said.

"They were a very healthy, 42-year-old couple (when they were kidnapped in May). Now their hands are shaking, they can't keep their voices straight, their eyes are going in and out of focus. They are very, very thin."

Despite the deployment of some 7,000 Filipino soldiers in the heavily-forested Basilan island, finding the kidnap victims and their captors has proven difficult.

The military believes the Abu Sayyaf group, which has links to the al-Qaeda network of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, may be hiding in caves or trenches.

The eight-month kidnap crisis has not only damaged the image of the Philippines but also tarnished the reputation of the country's armed forces after military commanders were accused of colluding with the Abu Sayyaf reportedly for part of the ransom.

"We know that the Philippine government is doing everything to rescue us," Martin Burnham said in the November interview.

"I don't want to sound disrespectful, but it's not working," he said.

"Anyone who can solve this crisis, we would appreciate very much," his weeping wife Gracia had said.

But the United States has not lost faith in the Philippine military, the western diplomat said.

"Philippine troops have lost 43 dead in their bid to free the Burnhams. There is thus no question about their intention and dedication," the diplomat said.

"But the problem is giving them the skills that it will take to effect the rescue," he added.

The United States is sending 600 troops, including the crack Special Action Forces, to help equip and train Filipino soldiers in their pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf.

Washington branded the group a terrorist organisation after the September 11 terror attacks in the United States.

Part of the US troops are already in the southern city of Zamboanga.

The United States is also giving the Philippines eight helicopters, a high-speed naval vessel and 30,000 M-16 rifles which can be used in the joint operations against the guerrillas.

Other equipment in the military aid package included night-vision goggles and weapons that allow M-16 rifles to shoot grenades.

"The high-speed cyclone class cutter (naval craft) will be useful because the terrorists have a habit of using high speed boats. This thing will catch up (with them)," a US official said.

Troops on the ground are now mostly using "first generation equipment" against the Abu Sayyaf's high-powered firearms and foreign-made assault rifles and anti-tank hardware.

Apart from the Burnhams, an Italian priest is being held by another group of Muslim gunmen elsewhere in the south.