Kidnapped U.S. Missionary Killed in Philippines

MANILA (Reuters) - An American missionary held hostage for more than a year by Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines was killed and his wife wounded but rescued on Friday in a gunbattle between the kidnappers and troops, officials said.

A Filipina nurse held hostage by the same Abu Sayyaf rebels -- which has links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network -- was also killed in the firefight, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said in a statement.

"I am deeply saddened over the death of Martin Burnham and one of our very own, Ediborah Yap, who were slain in an encounter between our troops and the Abu Sayyaf after more than a year in captivity," Arroyo said.

"The terrorists shall not be allowed to get away with this. We shall not stop until the Abu Sayyaf is finished."

Burnham's wife, Gracia, was recovering in hospital with a bullet wound to the leg, Philippines military spokesman Brigadier-General Eduardo Purificacion told a local radio station.

An official told Reuters the fighting took place in the Zamboanga del Norte area on Mindanao island.

Further details of the gunbattle were not immediately available, but some military officials said four rebels had been killed in the fighting and Philippine troops had also taken casualties.

Asked if the gunbattle had erupted after a rescue attempt that went wrong, Purificacion said only: "It was part of our deliberate operations."

The Burnhams, from Wichita, Kansas, and married for more than 18 years, were among three Americans abducted by the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas in May last year from a tourist resort off Palawan island in the country's southwest.

The rebels beheaded the other American, Californian tourist Guillermo Sobero, in June last year and the Burnhams were taken to a rebel jungle stronghold on Basilan island, 560 miles south of the capital, Manila.


Philippines military chief Roy Cimatu told reporters that U.S. troops currently training their Philippine counterparts in jungle warfare on Basilan had not been involved in the gunbattle in which Burnham and Yap were killed.

More than 1,000 U.S. troops are in the Philippines to help Manila crush the Abu Sayyaf, which Washington has linked to bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Arroyo sent her condolences to the families of the Burnhams and Yap, adding that the army had done all it could to try to keep them alive.

"This has been a long and painful trial for them, for our government, for our country," she said.

"Our soldiers tried their best to hold their fire for their safety. We had hoped and prayed for their safe return."

The Abu Sayyaf claim to be fighting for an independent Muslim state in the south of predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, but their chief occupation seems to be kidnappings for ransom.

In April 2000 Abu Sayyaf rebels abducted 21 mostly foreign hostages from the nearby Malaysian diving resort of Sipadan and took them by motorboats to Jolo island, near Basilan.

The operation earned the guerrillas international notoriety as well as an estimated $20 million in ransom.